In Charles McKelvey, Cuba, Latin America and the Caribbean

By Charles McKelvey,

Published on the author’s Substack column, Aug 16, 2022:

The enemies of the Cuban Revolution tried to present the it as evidence of a failed state: a fire of immense magnitude at the base for petroleum supertankers in the industrial zone of Matanzas, caused by an oil tank being struck by lightning.  But the reality was that the Cuban Revolutionary Government was able to mobilize the necessary resources to control the fire in five days and to totally extinguish it in seven.  Cuba could not have done it without the support of Mexico and Venezuela.



Several of them had burns on the back of the neck and ears, or a hand or a foot bandaged, resting beneath a canopy or on the grass, in conditions clearly improvised.  “We could go to places that are prepared in the city, but no one wants to leave from here.”  Nearby, team leaders were coolly giving instructions: install more pumps, bring more water, make more spray, and connect more tubes.  All is done with the naturalness of the sense of duty that pervades the land of Martí and Fidel.

The enemies of the Cuban Revolution tried to present it as evidence of a failed state: a fire of immense magnitude at the base for petroleum supertankers in the industrial zone of Matanzas, caused by an oil tank being struck by lightning.  But the reality was that the Cuban Revolutionary Government was able to mobilize the necessary resources to control the fire in five days and to totally extinguish it in seven.  Cuba could not have done it without the support of Mexico and Venezuela.  But that support was present, as a result of the historic legacy of solidarity between Cuba and the two nations, and because of Cuba’s recent history of sending medical brigades to the sister Latin American nations.  When a Cuban journalist thanked a Mexican technical specialist for his presence, he responded, “Thank you for having confidence in us.  Of course we are present, because Cuba and Mexico are brother/sister peoples.”

Solidarity among peoples is the spirit of our time.  It is the Latin American response to 124 years of Yankee imperialism, dating the iniquity from the 1898 U.S. military intervention in Cuba.  Latin American solidarity is the definitive and final response of Latin America to imperialism.  It is the spirit that is the foundation to the building, step-by-step, of a more just and sustainable world-system.  It is the spirit that is establishing world peace and prosperity as the legacy of the twenty-first century, and not the death and destruction unleashed by Western imperialisms in decadence.

Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who relocated along with other government and Party officials to Matanzas to coordinate the response, stressed the courage and the spirit of solidarity that was everywhere visible.  He observed that there was much fake news on the social media which was trying to initiate a lack of confidence and to provoke disorder; but the people have responded with a high level of participatory solidarity, with many gestures of donating blood, delivering food and supplies, and volunteering.  And on the battle front, they demonstrated heroic, self-sacrificing courage.

Cuban institutions were mobilized for the battle: the Ministry of the Interior, the Revolutionary Armed Forces, firefighters, civil defense, and mass organizations.  Private and state companies contributed to the effort.   Transport workers from all over the country arrived with their vehicles to assist in the transport of equipment and material donated by other countries from the local airport to the point of combat and to transport injured persons to hospitals.

Díaz-Canel explained on the third day: “We are confronting an event that is not usual in the country, it is not a question of a hurricane.  We are speaking of a fire of high proportions on a base of supertankers, very difficult to control.”  He noted that “we do not have in Cuba all the required means nor the necessary technology, and therefore, we are counting on technical consultation [with specialists from Mexico and Venezuela] that will enable us to know the level of knowledge that we have.”  He added that “with the experience of these countries, that have experienced events of this magnitude, we will be able to confront the situation.”

Chronology of Events: The fire on the offensive

On the afternoon-evening of Friday, August 5, one of eight petroleum tanks at a base of supertankers was struck by lightning.  At the time, the tank contained 26,000 cubic meters of national crude, 50% of its capacity.  Immediately, a column of smoke was seen in the entire city of Matanzas.

Although the causes of the incident will be evaluated, it appears that the protective conducting rods in place were not able to contain the energy of the electric discharge.

Top officials of the Party and the Government of the Province of Matanzas immediately arrived at the scene and activated forces to suffocate the fire and prevent it from spreading to adjacent tanks.  They ordered the evacuation of the population in the area.  Cuban President Díaz-Canel and high officials of the Party and the Cuban government arrived after midnight to coordinate the response and to issue statements to the press.  Roberto Morales Ojeda, Secretary of Organization of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba, set up a command post at the provincial headquarters of the Party in Matanzas.  In subsequent days, Díaz-Canel, Prime Minister Manuel Marrero Cruz and other party and government officials visited the injured, interacted with firefighting and medical personnel, and met with another to devise strategies.  Among the injured was Liván Arronte Cruz, Minister of Energy and Mines.  Firefighters and other specialists from other provinces of Cuba soon arrived.

At 5:00 a.m. Saturday August 6, a second tank exploded, as a result of the elevated temperature of the first tank in flames.  Apparently four explosions took place in the second tank during the day.  The fate of some seventeen persons who were working in the vicinity of the second tank is unknown.  The high temperatures had become unsustainable, preventing access to the place where they were.  Three of the disappeared later appeared in hospitals, reducing the number of missing persons to fourteen.

Essential labor now turned to cooling the third tank.  By 7:00 am Saturday, the first tank had burned in its entirely, such that the fire in the first tank was now emitting white smoke instead of the customary black smoke of burning petroleum.  It was hoped that the fire could be prevented from spreading to the rest of the tanks.

The President asked aid and advice from friendly countries with experience in petroleum.  Mexico and Venezuela immediately responded.

A little before midnight on Sunday on August 7, a great explosion occurred, provoking the expansion of the fire to adjacent tanks, apparently because of the collapse of what had been burning since the early morning of Saturday.  At a press conference at 6:20 p.m. on August 8, lieutenant coronel Alexander Avalos Jorge of the Fire Extinguishing Corps of Cuba announced that four tanks are now compromised.  He declared that they are working in a defensive form, trying to prevent the expansion of the fire to the remaining four tanks.

The battle strategy

The strategy from the beginning had been defensive, seeking to prevent the fire from spreading to other tanks.  Walls of dirt were constructed for containment.  And water was sprayed on adjacent tanks with high pressure hoses in order to cool them, for which giant tubes were installed, using Cuban (and subsequently Venezuelan) pumps.

Helicopters played decisive role in the water attacks, five helicopters of the Cuban Revolutionary Armed Forces and subsequently four military helicopters from Mexico.  The water was carried in a container suspended from the helicopter.  The containers held 2,500 liters of water, adding two tons of weight to the helicopter.  The helicopters descended to two meters above the sea to fill the containers.  The pilots were in constant communication with the pointers on the ground, who created a flight profile for each “water attack,” because the points of attack were precisely defined.  The release of the water was controlled by hand by means of an electric system.

In this first stage, it was impossible to access the fire itself, because of high temperatures, the density of the smoke, and the lack of oxygen.  Once the temperature is sufficiently cooled, the battle could advance to a second stage of directly attacking the flames.

In the second stage, the flames were directly attacked with a spray of water mixed with chemicals.  A chemical spray for suffocating petroleum fires was first developed by Aleksandr Loran, a Russian chemist and engineer, at the beginning of the twentieth century.  His substances, which included aluminum sulfate and bicarbonate of sodium, have been modified over the years with new, more effective ingredients.  Two Cuban pumps were used, and a third with greater force from Venezuela, to extinguish the fire with the spray.

On August 9, the teams of firefighters charged with watering the adjacent tanks were able to advance in the cooling of the infrastructure, aided by the arrival of a firefighting ship from Mexico and the installation of two more high-pressure water pumps from Venezuela and Mexico.  By mid-day, the taking of the offensive was announced, seeking to extinguish the fire through the application of chemical spray directly on the fire.

Thus, August 9 was completely different from the previous day.  Both offensive and defensive actions were being taken, and the task of extinguishing the fire through chemical spray was advancing.  The worst had passed, and firefighters returning from the zone of combat were declaring, “Today we are breaking it.”  Although by then it was evident from the increased visibility that four tanks had completely collapsed, the remaining four tanks had not been damaged.

By August 10, the fire was nearly completely extinguished.  It was officially declared extinguished on Friday, August 12.

The fire under control

International cooperation

Mexico and Venezuela sent 120 experts in firefighting, petroleum, and health as well as pumps and necessary materials.  From Mexico arrived a ship, constructed twelve years ago, designed to battle fires of great magnitude, from which a great stream of water was launched.  And from the Aztec nation arrived four military helicopters, mentioned above, which worked in tandem with Cuban military helicopters.  And as noted, high-pressure water pumps arrived from Mexico and Venezuela.  In addition, four tons of chemical spray for suffocating the fire arrived to the island.

Cubans, Mexicans, and Venezuelans worked in an integrated form side by side, with all suggesting strategies on the basis of their knowledge and experience.  Together they designed strategies, involving creative on the spot innovations, such as making the Mexican and Venezuelan equipment and technologies compatible with the Cuban system, and adjusting the location of water pumps to maximize extraction of the greatest quantity of water possible.

There are heroes

Díaz-Canel declared that only heroism made it possible to reverse the disastrous situation.  In the control of the fire, he declared, there is much courage.  “The control of the fire had been possible because of a combination of factors, above all courage in the work.  The attainment of the objective was due to heroism, courage, solidarity, and commitment.”

A hospital tent was lifted up relatively near the epicenter of the fire by personnel from military and naval hospitals in the province.  The six medical workers mostly treated firefighters for heatstroke and dehydration, who reported that the epicenter was a true inferno, with unbearable temperatures.  The medical workers exhorted them to rest a short while, but they were determined to not lose time and to go back in.

Supertankers of Matanzas Special Command No. 2 is composed of youth between 18 and 26 years of age from all over the country.  There were fifteen on duty at 5:35 p.m. when they received a call informing them that lightning had struck one of the tanks and that it was on fire.  They arrive at the sight at 5:40, and they began to cool the walls of the tank with water.  Command No. I of Matanzas was already the scene, spraying water.  They were still on the scene on the early morning of Saturday, when the second tank exploded, sending flames everywhere. By 7:00 a.m., having lost much of their fire extinguishing equipment to the blaze, they had to evacuate and return to the command post, in order to redeploy.  On Sunday, they could not speak of hope.  They would only say that they must keep going, because someone had to stop it.

Juan Valdés Ruiz is a volunteer rescue worker of the Red Cross in Matanzas.  His team arrived at 9:00 p.m., finding the first tank burning with a tall flame.  The explosion of the second tank is recorded in his memory as provoking a flame of nearly a kilometer in height, illuminating the entire city of Matanzas.  For him and his comrades, there was no choice but to run; the intense heat burned them.  Some members of the Red Cross team had to return to their houses; others continued on lending support in transferring burned and injured persons to hospitals.  As Valdés Ruiz prepared to go in again, he declared that “to return there is a normal thing; we are trained for it.”

In Memory

Although it was his day of rest, Elier Manuel Correa Aguilar, a 24-year-old officer of the Firefighting Corps of Cuba, decided to join his firefighting companions in combatting the immense fire at the Base of Supertankers in Matanzas.  He died from burns, after spending three days in critical condition.  He was buried in his native city of Bayamo, attended by his family, friends, work companions, and the people of a proud city.  In his last telephone conversation with his mother, he told her that he was in the front row, and he was not afraid.  In a post on Twitter, Díaz-Canel characterized him a hero of the great feat of Matanzas.  “Thanks to the heroic deeds of men like him, the fire was controlled.”

Juan Carlos Santana Garrido was a member of the Special Command of Protection of the Petroleum Refinery of Cienfuegos.  At the time of his retirement in 2008 at the age of 62, he was the first operator of the water tank, with the highest NCO rank.  During his career, he had received two medals of distinguished service, and he had the honor of participating in the transfer of the remains of Che Guevara to their final resting place in Santa Clara.  He was the winner of various competitions of firefighting specializations.  Upon his retirement, he regularly volunteered for firefighting tasks, including the fire at the Base of Supertankers in Matanzas, in which he lost his life.  He was buried in Cienfuegos, with high members of the Party and the government of the province in attendance.

On the Cuban Press

Díaz-Canel praised the Cuban press for transmitting “beautiful stories of life that are found here, of deliveries of materials and voluntary work.”  Indeed, the press disseminated the image of a people united and sacrificing in common cause, with numerous testimonials transmitted.  In stands in contrast to the Western media, which often in its reporting on disasters speculates on who is to blame and looks for stories of persons suffering from hardship, orientated to blaming the authorities for their difficulties.  News reporting of this kind cultivates cynicism among the people, and it misses the central point of the story, which is the spirit of self-sacrifice and solidarity among the people, revealing the people at their best.

Remaining tasks

With the fire controlled and extinguished, attention now turns to health treatment for the wounded.  Since the beginning of the event, 128 injured persons have been attended.  Twenty remain hospitalized, five in critical and two in serious condition; and 108 have been treated and released.  Most of the hospitalized were treated for burns from fire or from intense heat (arriving up to 100 or 120 degrees Centigrade); or for contamination with dust, contaminated water, and chemical particles.

And there is attention to the families of fourteen persons who have disappeared.  The finding and identification of the disappeared persons will begin as soon as conditions permit, which will begin with an exploratory mission.

Air quality and other environmental dimensions are being monitored.  So far, there is no evidence of environmental contamination, but the Minister of Science, Technology, and Environment, Elba Rosa Pérez Montoya, declared that monitoring of the air, rain, vegetation, soils, and pastures will continue. Specialists in the Institute of Meteorology declared that the population should take precautions; they should not go close to the fire, and persons with respiratory conditions should wear facemasks.  Celso Pazos Alberdi, Director General of the Institute of Meteorology, asserted that, although the cloud of smoke contains some contaminant gases, their concentration at the land surface is not elevated.

Díaz-Canel observed that restauration work will begin.  “We are going to recuperate the base of supertankers,” he declared.

The Context

The Base of Supertankers in the industrial zone of Matanzas has five piers for receiving vessels of up to 180,000 tons and 20 meters of depth.  It has (or had) eight tanks capable of holding 50,000 cubic meters.  The base is used primarily for the storage of crude oil for use in the nation’s thermoelectric system and cement factories.  Originally constructed in the late 1980s with the cooperation of the Soviet Union, it has been modernized various times in order to maximize the protection of the environment.  The eight tanks are constructed as geodesic domes, and they possess a metal casing or screen to protect static electric fields.

The have been intense fires at fuel storage or refining sites in five countries.  (1) A great fire broke out at the Suncor Energy petroleum company in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, on January 4, 2005.  The site was equipped with strategic sectors and technology for suffocating the flames in a short time.

(2) On December 11, 2005, an explosion occurred at the Buncefield Oil Storage Terminal in England.  The fire affected twenty tanks and lasted for several days.  It was extinguished with water and chemical spray, which joined with spilled fuel arrived to the subsoil through the drainage system, causing significant damage to the environment.

(3) In October 2009, a fire in the refinery of the Caribbean Petroleum Corporation in Puerto Rico burned twenty of forty fuel tanks in the installation.  It took several days for the fire to be controlled, which was attained when all the fuel was burned.

(4) On August 25, 2012, an escape of propane at the storage site of CRP Amuay in Venezuela provoked fires in nine storage tanks, killing forty, injuring dozens, and destroying hundreds of houses.  It took four days to extinguish the fires, which was attained by forcing chemical spray into the mouths of the tanks.

(5) In March 2014, a fire in two petroleum tanks provoked the total destruction of a treatment plant of crude oil in the state-owned YPF Company in Mendoza, Argentina.  Fourteen persons were wounded.  Control of the fire was attained on the second day.  The fire was suffocated through “hydrant airplanes” that mitigated the smoke and high temperatures.

In my commentary of August 2, 2022, “Socialist states and the environment,” I review Salvatore Engel-Di Mauro’s book on the theme.  Engel-DiMauro seeks to expose the ideologically driven disinformation campaign with respect to the supposedly disastrous record of socialist countries in regard to the environment.  On the basis of empirical observation, the concludes that socialist countries often have had good environmental records.  He considers Cuba to be an ecological model for the world.

The petroleum fire disaster in Cuba prompts us to return to this theme.  With respect to the six petroleum fire disasters in the world, we see that the example of Alberta, Canada and Mendoza, Argentina, show that the best situation is when the company is well equipped with fire extinguishing teams, equipment, and technologies.  This, of course, costs money, necessarily increasing the cost of the storage or the processing of the fuel.  In capitalist societies, the issue of cost versus environment unfolds as a political conflict between owners of the companies, who want to maximize profits; and ecological idealists, who demand the protection of the environment without putting forth a comprehensive analysis the productive needs of the society.  In states constructing socialism, the state is under the control of the people through structures of people’s democracy, and it is charged with both environmental regulation and expanding the productive capacity of the nation.  In this context, when specific measures for the protection of the environment are lacking, it is because the limited resources of the nation have compelled compromises in environmental protection.  In the long run, socialism is the better approach, because it leads step-by-step to attending to both productivity capacity and environmental protection, particularly as more and more nations develop their capacities and collaborate with other nations as needed.

In the case of the petroleum fire in Matanzas, the support of Mexico and Venezuela illustrate the importance of international cooperation.  There are questions which should be asked, which I am confident the government and Party in Cuba will ask.  What was the precise cause of the fire?  Was the cause related to the absence of any advanced equipment that is available in the world?  If so, can this be addressed for the future?  Can agreements be signed with Mexico, Venezuela, Russia, or China that would guarantee that necessary fire extinguishing equipment be readily available?


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