Coping, conservation and camaraderie

Cubans: Flexible and ingenious, they discovered the bright side of regular power blackouts.

May 06, 2001|By Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

When it comes to rolling blackouts, California can't hold a candle to Cuba. Since the early 1990s, when the former Soviet Union slashed oil exports to its one-time communist ally, Cuba has struggled with electricity woes. The nation's power grid is dated and deteriorating, its domestic oil options limited. To ease the crisis, the Cuban government launched scheduled power outages to conserve oil-generated energy.

Known as apagones, the staggered blackouts often lasted four hours or more, and were ordered every few days during the toughest years, in 1993 and 1994. At one point, the apagones became so frequent that residents started calling the sporadic moments of electricity "white-ons."

But Cubans coped.

They read blackout schedules published in the state-owned media and they prepared. By the time I first visited Cuba in January 1995, Cubans had developed a mode of living with limited fuel.

Hours before a scheduled outage, families shifted food into 1950s-era freezers to preserve perishables. More than a few people somehow found access to still-activated lines and siphoned off electricity to lamps and table-top burners, drawing shades to hide the glow. In the cities and countryside, commuters and travelers rode bicycles and shared cars with hitchhikers to save on gasoline, also in short supply. Streetlights were dimmed nightly along Havana's seaside avenue, the Malecon.

When candles, flashlight batteries, and wicks for oil lamps became scarce, Habaneros created a black market for blackout necessities. And something else happened.

When the lights went dark, Cubans gathered outside on porches, sharing light sources and mingling with neighbors. Especially in summer, they sought evening breezes along traffic-scarce streets. During a power outage one night in summer 1995, I watched a group of men and boys drape a sheet over a broken-down Soviet car and set a kerosene lantern on the trunk. A few teen-agers pulled out a creaky folding table and they all played dominoes. For hours.

"Cubans have developed ways to cope with adversity," says Carmelo Mesa-Lago, professor of international relations and Latin American studies at Florida International University.

"Cubans are ingenious. They've kept hundreds of American cars from the 1950s running," he adds.

Just last year, Cuba announced an end to scheduled blackouts and a boost in its power generating capacity, state-owned radio reported. The Cuban government has signed an oil deal with Venezuela that could help end the island's power problems.

With foreign investment, Cuba also has upped domestic oil production and adapted some power plants to burn its high-sulfur domestic crude.

The blackouts that hit California are likely to return as summer approaches. Newly deregulated Maryland should take note.

U.S. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham has warned that our nation is facing an energy crisis reminiscent of the 1970s, and last week Vice President Dick Cheney predicted that if nothing is done, California-style rolling blackouts "or worse" could spread across the country. Cheney wants to increase the use of oil, coal, natural gas and nuclear energy - and he distains broad conservation efforts.

No one wants to live under the measures the Cuban government touts as conservation, but we can't keep fueling America's wanton use of energy.

We can learn more than few lessons from Cuba's citizens: Cope and conserve. Shut off the TVs, VCRs, DVD players, desktop computers, and go visit a neighbor. We might save a kilowatt and make another kind of connection.

Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson, a former reporter at The Miami Herald, teaches nonfiction in the Writing Seminars at the Johns Hopkins University.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.