Small protests appear in Havana over islandwide blackout
People protest asking for the restoration of electrical service after four days of blackout due to the devastation of Hurricane Ian in Bacuranao, Cuba, Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

HAVANA (AP) — The power outage caused by Hurricane Ian has prompted protests in the streets of Cuba's capital as several hundred people demanded restoration of electricity more than two days after a blackout hit the entire island.

Reports are that about 400 people gathered Thursday night in at least two spots in the Cerro neighbourhood shouting, "We want light, we want light," and banging pots and pans.

It appeared to be the first public display over the electricity problems that spread from western Cuba, where Ian hit, to the entire island, leaving the country's 11 million people in the dark. The storm also left three people dead and caused still unquantified damage.

Power was restored to much of the island within a day after the storm's blast.

Internet service was interrupted Thursday, but there were signs it had returned by Friday morning, at least in some areas.

On Thursday, groups that monitor internet access reported a "near-total internet blackout in Cuba." Alp Toker, director of London-based Netblocks said that what his group saw was different than what happened right after the hurricane hit the island.

"We believe the incident is likely to significantly impact the free flow of information amid protests," he said.

Doug Madory, director of internet analysis at Kentik Inc., a network intelligence company, describes it as a "total internet blackout" that started at 00:30 GMT.

At a protest on Calzada del Cerro, protesters surrounded a work team trying to repair a pole and a light transformer.

Protesters were still in the streets late into the night, but the gatherings remained peaceful.

Repeated blackouts on the already fragile grid were among the causes of Cuba's largest social protests in decades in July 2021. Thousands of people, weary of power failures and shortages of goods exacerbated by the pandemic and US sanctions, turned out in cities across the island to vent their anger and some also lashed out at the government. Hundreds were arrested and prosecuted, prompting harsh criticism of the administration of President Miguel Diaz-Canel.

Cubans on Thursday complained that the outages forced them to throw out refrigerated meat and other goods that is costly or hard to find.

The government has not said what percentage of the overall population remained without electricity as of early Friday, but electrical authorities said only 10% of Havana's 2 million people had power Thursday.

Experts said the total blackout showed the vulnerability of Cuba's power grid and warned that it will require time and sources — things the country doesn't have — to fix the problem.

Authorities have promised to work without rest to address the issue.

Calls by AP to a dozen people in Cuba's main cities — Holguín, Guantánamo, Matanzas, Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey and Santiago — found problems similar to those in Havana, with most reporting their neighbourhoods were still without electricity.

Authorities say the total blackout happened because of a failure in the connections between Cuba's three regions — west, centre and east — caused by Ian's winds.

Cuba's power grid "was already in a critical and immunocompromised state as a result of the deterioration of the thermoelectric plants. The patient is now on life support," said Jorge Piñon, director of the Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy's Latin America and Caribbean program at the University of Texas.

Cuba has 13 power generation plants, eight of which are traditional thermoelectric plants, and five floating power plants rented from Turkey since 2019. There is also a group of small plants distributed throughout the country since an energy reform in 2006.

But the plants are poorly maintained, a phenomenon the government attributed to the lack of funds and US sanctions. Complications in obtaining fuel is also a problem.

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