09/10/2012 10:50 pm ET Updated Nov 10, 2012

Cuba Blackout: Half the Island Goes Dark as Electrical System Fails

In a country where power cuts have been an inseparable part of our lives, we should not be surprised when the lights go out. But yesterday, at 8:08 p.m., something happened that raised the alarms. First we lost our television signal, during the very first minutes of the primetime news. Then Havana blacked out entirely, to an extent and over an area exceeding anything we can remember happening, even during the worst of the hurricanes. Reports then started to come in from the various provinces confirming that from Pinar del Rio (90 miles to the west of us) to Camaguey (300 miles to the east of us), the island was in darkness. More than 5 million Cubans in the shadows, wondering what was happening.

Five hours later the electricity began to flow again in the neighborhood where I live. I ventured to scribble on paper some of the peculiarities of what happened. I transcribe them here:

  • The electrical blackout was accompanied by an information blackout. Over more than four hours, the official media said nothing about what was happening. With our battery radios, many of us turned the dial in search of an explanation, but the national broadcasters maintained silence. Radio Reloj (Clock Radio), which should have been giving us up-to-the-minute details of national and international events, talked about everything but the most important thing. So we heard a recipe for fish medallions, the benefits of having a mammogram, beautiful Brazilian legends about water, and news of the discovery of "prehistoric shoes" at archeological sites, everything except what we wanted to know: What has happened that half the country can't see their hands in front of their faces?
  • People began to despair. The police patrol cars ran their sirens in the streets, and now and then we heard a fire engine pass by. Trucks with their "state of siege" lights patrolled the area along the Malecón. This increased people's fear and, together with the news blackout, generated apprehension and a great deal of speculation.
  • The incident demonstrated the lack of foresight on the part of the Electric Company with regard to situations like this. A few places managed to run their generators, and in outlying neighborhoods they asked their own neighbors if they had any oil reserves they could use to jumpstart these electric plants.
  • That this blackout happened on a windless day caused particular concern; there was no cyclone deluging us with rain, no solar storm particularly focused on the largest of the Antilles. What, then, was the cause of a failure of such proportions?
  • Twitter again proved its informational effectiveness. An hour after the darkness descended, the Internet was already offering alternative reports on its geographic dimensions. It was not long before we had a hashtag for the situation: #Apagonazo.* While the official media made it clear that they can only inform to the extent that they are authorized to do so, the alternative news networks demonstrated their importance, not only when it comes time to denounce an outrage or an arrest but also during natural disasters, weather hazards, and accidents of any kind.
  • The much-trumpeted energy revolution, among whose "conquests" was to prevent this kind of monumental blackout, demonstrated its failure once again. Even the emblematic Morro Castle in Havana Bay lost its lighthouse lamp, which some associate ironically with the joke: "Will the last person leaving Cuba please turn off el Morro?"
  • More than half of those who called me in alarm during the time of darkness associated the event with some government problem. Phrases in the style of "it's broken" were repeated from all sides. The media disinformation strengthened this impression. It's a sign of the political and social fragility of a nation when a several-hour blackout can lead its citizen to think that the whole system has imploded. Significant, right?
  • Someone commented to me that the General-President "was demanding the blood" of the directors of the Ministry of Basic Industry. I limited myself to responding that he'd do better to ask for electricity, because it's very easy to demand that others be held accountable when we all know who makes the nation's major decisions about energy.
  • After a long silence, at midnight a brief note was read on TV, so cryptic that it generated still more speculation. They attributed the incident to a break in the 220,000-volt line near Ciego de Avila. So far they haven't added any details.
  • Gradually, over the course of the night, electricity was restored in the capital and in most other affected areas. There are no reports of any damages caused, although surely there must be many.
  • In the end we are left with the conviction that the country is in such a precarious material state that an incident like this could happen again, and, what's worse, that the national media will maintain its habitual secrecy.

Translator's note: "Apagone" is the word for "blackout," and the suffix "azo" means, more or less, a "blow" or a "strike." Protests are often named using the suffix "azo"; for example, the 1994 riots on the Malecón were dubbed the "Maleconazo," while Gorki Aguila called his protest against surveillance cameras, carried out on his balcony, a "balconazo."