Nation, Toxicity, and Care: Exploring Chemical Kinship in Cuba’s Latest Environmental Disaster

Throughout my undergraduate program, approaching Cuban literature and its depictions of nature nudged my eyes from the page to the places around me, not only through academic and activist pathways but also in a renewed sense of self and belonging. Soon, the bliss of dwelling on the beautiful island gave place to what can better be described as “disenchantment” in the inescapability from non-pure environments.[1] I was overwhelmed by the fact that besides exuberant flora and fauna lay grim wastescapes of deforestation and pollution.

The documentation of forests’ depletion for sugarcane plantations and timber extraction, radically transforming the landscape since its colonial administration, is the predominant topic in most accounts of Cuban environmental history.[2] Pollution as a widespread phenomenon on the island has received less academic attention from the humanities and social sciences.

However, earlier this month, the nation experienced what will enter its history as one of the worst environmental catastrophes ever to take place on the island. On August 5, lighting hit a storage tank at Cuba’s largest oil depot in Matanzas province, igniting a fire that spread rapidly—causing a total of three explosions and actively burning for more than 72 hours.[3] The country’s immediate worries remained centered on the ongoing and restless efforts of the disaster teams, the lives at risk trying to appease the fire, and the consequences for local households and industries of losing oil amid an already severe energy crisis.

In the frontlines: Cuban firemen face day one of the explosions in Matanzas’ oil facility. Photo by Raul Navarro. [Image description: Several Cuban rescue teams were deployed in the affected area trying to mitigate the fire burning on the first tank and cooling down the adjacent tanks to avoid new explosions.]
On the frontline: Cuban firemen face day one of the explosions in Matanzas’ oil facility. Several Cuban rescue teams were deployed in the affected area trying to mitigate the fire burning on the first tank and cooling down the adjacent tanks to avoid new explosions. Photo by Raul Navarro.
[Image description: A giant oil tank burns illuminating the night with an orange light; a group of firemen throw water to another tank from water trucks.]

Yet another threat literally looms in the horizon, as a dark mass of toxic fumes has been noticeable over four provinces and the wind pushing those fumes towards the ocean. Cuban authorities have instructed people in the vicinities of the storage tank to continue wearing masks, keeping windows closed, and avoiding contact with any rainwater. Yet anxiety in the population has only increased, as neighbors have understandably grown weary of using any tap water, despite the government’s declaration of safety of toxicants being recorded below the “dangerous” level.[4] Not only have toxic substances like SO2, NOx, CO, and other pollutants accumulated in the atmosphere, locals have also already reported a black coloration upon several structures and plantations following the disaster.

Oil rain: A farmer shows the black colorations that appeared in one of his plants after it rained for the first time following the accident at the near oil facility in Matanzas. Photo by Julio Cesar Garcia.
[Image description: A dark green leaf is tainted with a black substance; next to it, a man shows the palm of his hand with the same black taint.]

An event of this magnitude reminds us of Cuba’s long history of air and water pollution derived from the industrial sector. Although widely acknowledged by scientific research, little has been researched about how Cuban environmental policies have actually addressed these growing issues beyond bureaucratic escapism.[5] Simply put, the perpetrator has often been considered as another branch of the government itself: namely, as an industry driven by productivism, exportations, GDP growth, and other pitfalls of development. Thinking of Vanessa Agard-Jones’ inspiring lecture on “chemical kinship,” I remember that stories about how toxicity impacts Cuban peoples’ lives and how it reshapes their world have been seldom told.[6] Moreover, the motto “we are in this together” that remains relevant to polemicize notions of pollution, new materialisms, and environmental justice has a different meaning in Latin America’s first communist country.

While the concept of chemical kinship can be considered as an “analytical tool” that explores “modes of relating,” emerging relationalities can also shift material and political alignments.[7] In Cuba, ideas of unity, solidarity, and commonality have permeated political discourses for decades. At the same time though, the systematic contamination of water bodies, soils, and urban settlements by government run institutions seems to have democratized pollution in a less desirable fashion. I have heard more than one reference to public property and outdoor spaces being considered as followed: “since it belongs to everyone, it belongs to no one and thus no one really cares.”

However, evidence of the opposite is also latent in the country. While environmental movements have grown in number and depth, little has changed for those activists interested in pollution to better address the problem beyond local clean-up action, and insufficient household waste regulations. New forms of denouncement have emerged from nongovernmental media channels that unbury Cuba’s entanglement with chemical substances. One salient example of this literature is the awarded piece of narrative journalism “La sangre nunca fue amarilla” [The blood has never been yellow], which carefully describes how a neighborhood in Havana was poisoned with lead and subsequently neglected by the state.

Lead beneath our feet: Remnants of an old factory for lead smelting are 
easily found in San Miguel del Padron’s soil. Photo by Ismario Rodriguez. [Image description: A wet hand holds a piece of dark rock and dirt.]

Thinking about chemical kinship in Cuba prompts me to think how toxicity has been present in communities left adrift by a government that is unable to meet the required demands, and how it has silently become encoded in the national genetic makeup. These days though, with the images of burning oil and skies filled with smog replayed over and over in screens and retinas, it is glaringly present. Toxicity has enabled, in this context, narratives of local heroism and collaboration with other leftwing governments, rightly so. It has also called out the lax response of the Unites States to the disaster amid ongoing hostile policies towards Cuba, as well as the growing mistrust in the government by its population, even if the situation would be exceptionally difficult for anyone to manage. The matter has even given place to conspiracy theories and superstitious speculations. Hopefully though, the disaster will kindle conversations about transitioning to less harmful forms of energy generation in a country with a meager amount of 5% of its energy derived from renewable sources.[8]

White smoke covers the affected areas creating a toxic atmosphere of desolation. While the flames began to be controlled on day 5 of the explosions, the smoke continued spreading. Photo by Yamil Lage.
[Image description: Scorched plants and buildings appear in the landscape; a liquid substance covers the surface; a group of firemen throw water towards a dense cloud of gray smoke in the background.]

My home is broken, burning, and mourning as the flames turned thousands of liters of crude oil into altered air. I keep thinking of the incredible bravery of those facing the disaster on the frontline, and how this single event will be inscribed in Cuban history and bodies as a corporeal chronicle of the day toxicity broke loose. As one witness in the scene recalls, the crude oil flowed above, below, and in-between: “there was a moment of tension when we weren’t sure whether to come out or not, the oil was covering all the soil and was starting to reach the road.”[9] I think of the compassion with which Cubans have approached this disaster, the different forms of care manifest in the refusal to abandon other species in the middle of the catastrophe, or obsessively clicking for every update many miles away from the incident, with an equivalent love but a radically different privilege of not being infiltrated by those pervasive toxic materials.

Protecting life amid the disaster: Rescue teams also carried out the evacuation of several animals. Photo by Dairon Caballero Heredia.
[Image description: A man smiles wearing a red uniform and holds a dog; he stands next to a woman wearing a mask and a pullover that reads 
Cuban Red Cross; a woman in a crouched position wearing a blue uniform smiles while caressing a dog; next to her, another man in a red uniform pets the same dog.]

[1] Lawrence Buell, “Toxic Discourse,” Critical Inquiry 24, no. 3 (Spring 1998), 648.

[2] Reynado Funes Monzote, From Rainforest to Cane Field in Cuba: An Environmental History since 1492 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2008).

[3] Marc Frank and Nelson Acosta, “Fire rages at Cuba oil terminal; third tank collapses after spill,” Reuters (August 8, 2022).

[4] Alina Perera Robbio, “Los cinco días que han sacudido a Cuba, y las lecciones ganadas para siempre,” Granma (August 11, 2022).

[5] Arianna Rodríguez García and Leonel Peña Fuentes, “The protection of the environment in Cuba, a government priority,” Novedades en población, 30 (July 2019), 113.

[6] Vanessa Agard-Jones, “Racial Capitalism, Chemical Kin,” Distinguished Lecture Series (March 28, 2022), available to watch on YouTube.

[7] For more on “modes of relating,” see Angeliki Balayannis and Emma Garnett’s “Chemical Kinship: Interdisciplinary Experiments with Pollution,” Catalyst: Feminism, Theory, Technoscience 6, no. 1 (2020), 2.

[8] Oscar Figueredo Reinaldo and Edilberto Carmona Tamayo, “Cuba en Datos: El ineludible cambio de la matriz energética que necesitamos,” Cubadebate (July 1, 2022).

[9] Testimony from Cuban speleologist Esteban Grau, who was there at the moment of the third explosion, as it appears in a post from the Naturaleza Secreta’s Facebook account (in Spanish).

*Cover image: A Matanzas’ resident with cleaning utensils walks in front of the Bay of Matanzas, with clearly visible fumes from the fire that started on August 5, 2022.

[*Cover image description: A man walks on a road carrying a bicycle with red brooms and other instruments for domestic use attached to it; grass and the sea appear on the next plane; in the background, a black smoke cloud moves from the right to the left side of the image.]

Edited by Diana Valencia-Duarte, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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