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Oil Cutoff Lengthens Gas Lines in Cuba, Forces Power Outages

July 20, 1992

HAVANA (AP) _ Carlos Espeleta fought in Fidel Castro’s revolution; now he fights for the right to fill his gas tank.

″I’ve been waiting here for more than an hour 3/8″ fumed the retired chemist, sweating in the humid, 90-degree heat. Seven cars were ahead of him and many others behind in a line that stretched two blocks from a state-run gas station.

Many stations are bone-dry, casualties of an energy crisis whose severity increased this month when an oil contract with Russia expired. Cuba began suffering gasoline shortages last year when its principal supplier, the economically collapsing Soviet Union, began reducing its highly subsidized oil exports.

Since July 1, Havana has endured daily scheduled eight-hour power outages aimed at conserving fuel. Unscheduled power cuts have hit in the past week.

The fuel shortage has forced further reductions in bus service and cutbacks in hours of government and university offices.

Government officials meanwhile are scrambling for hard currency to buy fuel on the open market. About 750,000 bicycles, many puchased from China, have been distributed in the past year to help cut energy consumption.

People with cars fear their monthly gas ration - as little as three gallons - may be further cut or even eliminated in August.

As part of Cuba’s efforts to get hard currency, tourists can buy as much gas as they want, at $3.75 a gallon. The price for Cubans is about 3 cents a gallon.

Espeleta, 73, blames the longtime U.S. embargo on Cuba for much of the crisis, but says the 33-year-old Communist government also bears some responsibility.

″I was a fighter in this revolution, but we made a mistake,″ said Espeleta, standing outside his idled car on Thursday afternoon in the western Havana suburb of Miramar.

″Before, we were too dependent on the United States,″ he said, referring to the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista that Castro toppled in a popular revolution in 1959. ″But then we became dependent on the Russians.″

He stopped talking briefly to open the door and grab the wheel. His wife, Nery, 56, and daughter, Maysa, 17, pushed the car a few feet foward after another car filled up.

Espeleta then glanced at his pocket watch: only 40 minutes left before the pumps shut down in a scheduled blackout. He said he’d waited two or three hours in line in recent weeks. If he didn’t get the gas this day, he’d come back the next.

The fuel shortages have forced layoffs of people like Francisco Figueroa, 28, a former bus driver. As he worked on the engine of his early 1950s Ford Mercury, Figueroa said Cubans were fed up with sacrificing and needed change.

Stepping away from his friends, Figueroa said they all felt the same way but were afraid of Castro’s police apparatus, which includes parapolice units on many blocks of town.

He pointed across the street to an Assembly of God church and said: ″I’m a believer, so I am not afraid of this government.″

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