Cubans are braced for possible blackouts, transport problems and cuts in working hours after President Miguel Díaz-Canel warned of a looming fuel shortage sparked by US sanctions against Havana.
Mr Díaz-Canel appeared on television with other senior officials on Wednesday and blamed tough new US measures intended to stop third parties from doing business with Cuba or shipping fuel to the country for the crisis.
“They are trying to stop fuel from arriving in Cuba,” he said, forcing Havana, which imports 60 per cent of its consumption, to constantly renegotiate supplies.
“The application of unilateral measures has limited contracts with shipping companies that provided resources to Cuba. There are entities that have withdrawn,” he said.
The Cuban leader was scheduled to appear on television again on Thursday to field questions about the crisis.
While the government has said the crisis will be temporary, it is the first time since the collapse of former benefactor the Soviet Union that a fuel shortage has threatened such serious consequences.
Mr Díaz-Canel insisted that contracts had been signed for fuel deliveries later this month and in October that would alleviate the shortages.
The Trump administration this year has tightened the decades-old US embargo against Cuba, reversing a brief period of detente under Donald Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama. Travel, oil shipments, third-party business and remittances from overseas were targeted in an effort to force Havana to drop its support for the far-left government in Venezuela.
Mr Díaz-Canel said Mr Trump’s government was unique in its level of aggression: “We are ready for anything. We should look at this as a training exercise.”
Cubans have been living with reduced street lighting, deteriorating transport and sporadic food, medicine and other shortages for the past four years as tighter US sanctions on Caracas have disrupted oil shipments from Venezuela.
“US policy is working as designed to add to pain already inflicted by Venezuela’s slow decline,” Philip Peters, a US-based Cuba expert and business consultant, said.
José, who delivers yoghurt door-to-door in Havana, agreed. “I think life will keep getting more difficult until Trump leaves office,” he said, declining to give his full name.
José, a resident of neighbouring Artemisa province, said he and his neighbours had watched Mr Díaz-Canel’s remarks.
“I am an optimist and think we will get through this, but of course there are pessimists who despair,” he said, adding that public transport in a country where few owned cars was the biggest problem.
The Cuban president took pains to stress that the current crisis did not compare with the economic depression of the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed — a nightmare that weighs on the country’s collective memory with its daily blackouts and other hardships and that is known as the “special period”.
Mr Díaz-Canel took office 18 months ago and has filled the leadership vacuum left after his 88-year-old predecessor Raúl Castro stepped down.
Mr Castro, a discreet, behind-the-scenes operator, was rarely seen or heard from after taking over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2006. But Mr Díaz-Canel has visited every province at least once, with ministers in tow, and appears regularly on state television.
“Things could get better or worse,” said retired nurse Anaida González, speaking from central Camagüey province in a phone interview. “But people here appreciate the president’s courage for explaining everything to us, and that helps us get through whatever and feel more secure.”