The first rainfall collected in Matanzas, Cuba—after a fire broke out at the supertanker base in the cities’ industrial zone and burned for days—was full of black oil. 

The same severe thunderstorm that had killed three people near the White House in Washington, D.C. on Aug. 4, produced a lightning bolt that struck a fuel storage tank on Friday, Aug. 5 in Matanzas. The fire that resulted spread and, by Monday, Aug. 8, had consumed four oil tanks and caused huge explosions. Local firefighters and many young military recruits were sent to fight the flames; when they were overwhelmed, Mexico and Venezuela sent firefighter reinforcements. 

Three U.S. Congressmembers called on the Biden administration to also send aid to fight the fire: “We are deeply concerned about the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Matanzas, Cuba, less than 150 miles from our border. Crises such as this demand an urgent and meaningful response from neighboring countries,” said Barbara Lee (D-CA), Gregory W. Meeks (D-NY) and James P. McGovern (D-MA) in an Aug. 10 statement. “We fear that the significant recovery efforts needed in Matanzas will push an already resource-strapped Cuba closer to the brink. Now is the time to put politics aside and prioritize humanitarian engagement, environmental protection, and regional cooperation.”

Thick, black smoke hovered for days

It’s being called the largest oil fire in Cuba’s history: and with the flames now out, the citizens of Matanzas are having to confront the health concerns they will face in its aftermath.

“The wind blew northwest to Mayabeque and Havana provinces,” said a local resident (the resident did not want their name used). “The families living on the western side from the catastrophe were all evacuated. People were told they shouldn’t go out unnecessarily and that houses should remain closed permanently.”

Matanzas is in west-central Cuba, just 60 miles east of Havana. It is a city known for its rich Afro Cuban culture—this is where the danzón, mambo, and rumba were created—and as a city where African-based religions and traditions remain prominent. Today, an estimated 23% of the city’s population is Afro Cuban. Because it houses a port with a deep bay, Matanzas is also where the Cuban nation receives its heavy crude and fuel oil imports. The oil is both received and stored in Matanzas and used to produce electricity throughout the island.

Matanzas-born Maria Magdalena Campo Pons, a world-renowned artist who serves as professor of fine arts at the U.S.’s Vanderbilt University, told the AmNews she’s devastated by the fires in her hometown. “Part of my family is still in Matanzas, so I have very strong connections and contacts and communication daily with people there.” Matanzas was Cuba’s center of the COVID-19 pandemic and has since been plagued with a dengue fever epidemic. “So, with this explosion taking place—and there are no medicines in Cuba: there are no antibiotics, there are no painkillers, there are no electrolytes—I needed to send some help.”

Utilizing the Engine for Art, Democracy and Justice organization she founded, Campo Pons is encouraging the donation of humanitarian supplies that will be sent directly to people who need them in Matanzas. “It’s not that we’re sending a packet and giving it to the government to then do whatever they want with it, no, no, no, no. We are doing this people-to-people, hand-to-hand to the person who needs it,” Campo Pons assured: “We are taking the donations and we will have a tally of the donations and we are not going against the embargo; we are not going behind the door, we are just doing our work: art as a healing art. It is for me a moral, ethical call. I consider myself as an artist and as a curandera, a healer. My grandmother was a healer, and I am here in the time that is given to me to do good to anyone anyplace anytime when I can.”

Responding to a catastrophe

“The truth is that everyone is very calm,” notes Amor Díaz-Campos. “There is a lot of anger about the young firemen who died, there is a petition to end compulsory military service in Cuba. Sending those inexperienced young people to face an unprecedented catastrophe in this country is considered as the only big mistake made by the authorities in the face of this disaster,” she said. At last count, 2 people died in the supertanker fire, 132 were injured and 19 were hospitalized. 

Díaz-Campos said that city residents, like most Cubans, are accustomed to preparing for emergency situations and, though medical supplies are not available, most people are finding ways to deal with the situation. “We raised money to buy medical supplies in Miami and send them to Matanzas for the injured,” she explained. “Unfortunately, we have a critical situation with dengue here, and the hospitals were not prepared for another unexpected crisis like this fire. They are short of bandages and medicines. What could be purchased will arrive in the next 48 hours.” 

Another Matanzas resident commented: “We heard about acid rains in particular for those living in the exposed area near the black smoke. People [were told they] should avoid it and [avoid] the consumption of water. Families must boil the water. Masks were mandatory but people in the city didn’t take it seriously. That’s my personal perception of danger from the only time I went to the downtown.”

Maria Magdalena Campo Pons is hoping that donations brought to residents through her EADJ will remind Matanzas residents that others want the best for them. “The artists there—which is my community—have been sharing with me and they said the population, nobody is complaining, but people are incredibly sad,” Campo Pons revealed. “They’re trying to, you know, come together and try to find a way to respond to this catastrophe.”

Matanzas donations can be sent to Anaïs (Nisi) Daly, EADJ’s program manager, at 1204 25th Ave. South, Suite 240, Nashville, TN 37240. Monetary donations can be sent to Daly at cashapp $NisiDaly, Venmo @Anais-Daly or on PayPal at anais.j.daly@gmail.com.

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