Havana, Cuba — The latest thing that we are running short of is gasoline. A couple of weeks ago, a notice was circulated among workplaces that as of April 1, gas stations would be selling “especial” — premium gasoline — only to cars rented from tourist agencies.
That meant no especial for Cubans or foreigners like us who live here. We buy especial for our car because Cuba’s gasoline, which comes from Venezuela, is a very heavy crude that must be diluted. Premium, we’ve been told, is the equivalent of regular unleaded back in the United States. So now that we have to use Cuba’s regular unleaded, we’re not exactly sure what kind of sludge we’re putting in our vehicles.
As soon as we got the notice, we hit the gas station for a final tank of especial. In Cuba, gasoline is sold at a fixed price by one state-owned entity called “CUPET.” There is no choice of brands like Shell or Chevron. We generally go to the gas station down the street from us, because it’s off the main avenue and therefore less busy, and because its mini-mart sometimes has food items that we can’t find at the “super”market such as milk, pasta sauce, and spaghetti. The first time I went to the gas station in Cuba on my own, I remember feeling a little nervous, unsure of how it all worked. Would I have to pump the gas myself? How would I know what to do?
It was a silly thing to think, as buying gas works relatively the same here as anywhere else in the world. The line that greeted me was relatively short; usually the wait isn’t long, since there are few cars in Cuba (I would estimate that 5 to 10 percent of the adult population owns a car). After waiting, I pulled up at a pump and discovered it was relatively straightforward. Every few pumps had an attendant, and for a small tip from a quarter to a dollar, they take care of the whole process for me, from paying for the gas to pumping it.
But the day after the rationing of premium gas was announced, the station near our home was crammed with cars, just like every other one in Havana. There was a line of several dozen cars waiting when we arrived. Drivers turned off the engines and milled about on the sidewalk, conversing with each other. There was talk that prices for regular unleaded would be going up. (Gasoline is already expensive here, compared to the United States. In Cuba, it costs $80 to fill our tank, whereas it would cost about $50 back home, at current prices.) At least one driver had brought a large plastic container in his trunk and after filling his tank, he filled up the plastic container as well.
Surprisingly, it took only an hour to get to the pump — which isn’t that bad, given that I’ve waited in lines just as long in Havana to change money or to buy eggs.
This scene at the gas station has continued over the last week; inexplicably, though, certain stations are still selling premium gasoline to locals so now we’re on a constant scavenger hunt to find which station might have it. In the process, I’ve also learned that there are two other grades of unleaded that I didn’t know about: motor which is an even lower and cheaper grade than regular that motorcycles and old rusty Russian Ladas use, and super especial, a higher and more expensive grade than premium which is, oddly enough, still available sometimes when especial is not.
The gasoline shortage recalls the Periodo Especial in the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union. Suddenly, $2 billion in subsidies to Cuba disappeared, and the biggest fallout was the disappearance of petroleum. Nearly all cars stopped moving, and buses were extremely few and far between. Power outages of 14 hours a day were common. The lack of gasoline and energy also meant that the food system began failing, and the Cuban calorie intake was reduced by almost half of what it had been during the 1980s.
This current crisis is making us rethink our travel plans around the island. We’d thought about traveling to Varadero or Vinales with visiting friends and family, but we don’t want to get stuck hours away from home, with two little children and no gas. Also, once our tank is about half empty we start looking for a gas station with a relatively short line to fill up. Some friends have been going to the station with large plastic containers to keep a reserve on hand, but I’ve decided it’s too dangerous to add to my already very long to-do list.
It seems paradoxical that Cuba would be in the middle of a gas crisis, given that American tourists have increased like crazy and that relations have improved between the United States and Cuba. But in Cuba we have come to learn that it’s generally two steps forward and one-and-a-half steps back.