Faced with a lack of fuel, the boom in electric vehicles

An electric scooter on the streets of Havana, Cuba, on May 25, 2022 (Yamil LAGE/AFP/Archives)

“Gasoline? Imagine that for 50 years we struggled to find it. I don’t want to hear about it or smell it anymore!”, exclaims Sixto Gonzalez, in front of the electric cart he bought to move to Havana.

In the Cuban capital, where fuel shortages are rife and public transport fails, motorcycles and small electric vehicles are increasingly numerous to squeeze between iconic 1950s American sedans and indestructible Soviet-era Ladas.

Costing anywhere from $4,000 to $8,000 on an island where car prices are prohibitive, these electric carts have become the dream of many Cubans, tired of the endless lines in front of gas stations.

In addition to the electric cart, Sixto Gonzalez, 58, owns one of the 600,000 heat engine cars that circulate on the island of 11.2 million inhabitants. This retired taxi driver remembers that the last time he needed gas, he waited eight hours.

An electric car parked near a gas station in Havana, Cuba on May 25, 2022.
An electric car parked near a gas station in Havana, Cuba, on May 25, 2022. (Yamil LAGE/AFP/Archives)

Faced with this situation, motorcycles, scooters or electric carts, which can transport passengers and goods, are seen as a welcome alternative.

The government encouraged the use of electric vehicles three years ago, starting with equipping employees of state-owned companies with them.

In a former Soviet truck depot in downtown Santa Clara (center), the Minerva factory assembles electric vehicles whose parts are imported from China or Vietnam. One hundred workers work on the assembly lines.

Cuban workers work on an electric motorcycle assembly line at the Minerva factory in the city of Santa Clara, Cuba, April 26, 2022.
Cuban workers work on an electric motorcycle assembly line at the Minerva factory in the city of Santa Clara, Cuba, on April 26, 2022. (Yamil LAGE/AFP/Archives)

The aim is to produce 10,000 motorcycles and 2,000 electric scooters by 2022, Elier Pérez, the factory’s director, told AFP. According to the authorities, between 40,000 and 50,000 electric motorcycles are already circulating in the country.

“I had to buy one, because there is no gas and the lines (in front of the gas stations) are interminable”, explains Raul Suarez, as he climbs onto his electric motorcycle. This “solves a series (of problems), it’s a good initiative”, underlines this 52-year-old security guard.

“Fridge”

Because in addition to the difficulties of buying cars on the island, whose importation is notably hampered by the US embargo in force since 1962, public transport is a nightmare. Every day, residents spend hours waiting for a bus to get to work.

Almost 50% of the buses are stopped “due to lack of tires or batteries” and “the embargo does not allow the purchase of parts”, guarantees Guillermo Gonzalez, director of Engineering at the Ministry of Transport.

A worker moves tires on an electric motorcycle at the Minerva assembly plant in Santa Clara, Cuba, April 26, 2022.
A worker moves tires on an electric motorcycle at the Minerva automaker in Santa Clara, Cuba, on April 26, 2022. (Yamil LAGE/AFP/Archives)

At the same time, gasoline shortages have worsened since 2019 and the tightening of economic sanctions by Washington, blocking the arrival of tankers from Venezuela, an ally of Cuba.

Thus, the supply of oil fell from 100,000 barrels a day to around 56,000 in 2021, points out Jorge Piñón, a Cuban energy policy expert at the University of Texas.

Added to this is the lack of electricity, which increased in the last month due to the stoppage due to failures or maintenance of several plants in the country. To remedy this, the authorities use diesel-powered generators, which monopolize the largest amount of this fuel available on the island.

“There has never been a situation as difficult as it is now and it will be three months of heat in the summer”, underlines Jorge Piñón, referring to the increase in electricity consumption that normally occurs in the summer for air conditioning.

Passersby look at an electric scooter for sale in Havana, Cuba, May 25, 2022.
Passersby look at an electric scooter for sale in Havana, Cuba, on May 25, 2022. (Yamil LAGE/AFP/Archives)

According to Guillermo Gonzalez, the use of electric vehicles reduces “the consumption of fuel, diesel and gasoline, and at the same time pollution”.

Because despite regular cuts, electric vehicle owners can recharge their batteries at home when there is electricity, officials say.

“An electric motorcycle is like a refrigerator” for electricity consumption, summarizes the director of strategic policy at the Ministry of Energy, Ramses Calzadilla, who wants to have confidence in the resumption of plants in the short term.

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