Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Electricity Bills Go Off the Scale in Cuban City

People in Santa Clara complain about massive, unexplained price rise.
By Yoel Espinosa Medrano

Soaring electricity charges in the Cuban city of Santa Clara have infuriated locals, and the authorities have so far failed to explain the price hike.

The problem began in March when residents received their bills for the previous month and discovered that they had shot up beyond all proportion.

One householder, María Teresa, said she paid an average of 100 pesos a month (about four US dollars), yet her bill for February came to 1,890 pesos.

“This month’s bill is higher than the total of what I paid over the last 12 months,” she said angrily.

María Teresa is not alone. A former employee of the state-run electricity company said some people had received bills of more than 5,000 pesos for a month, and one was even charged 64,000 pesos, the equivalent of 2,400 dollars.

Staff at the power company’s office in La Riviera, in the city centre, say they cannot cope with the hundreds of people coming in to complain. Long queues of customers line up each day to speak to an agent.

“I am not leaving until it’s cleared up. I’m not going to pay the 3,010 pesos they have charged me. I’m sure we didn’t use that much electricity at home,” said Virginia, a primary school teacher. “Even if we put together my wage and my husband’s over three months, we’d still be in debt”.

Electricity in Cuba is state-subsidised and has been the principal resource for cooking ever since the government launched the “Energy Revolution” in 2006. This involved a campaign to discourage the domestic use of kerosene and oil, with the near-compulsory introduction of electrical stoves as well as rice and bean cookers.

Rosibel Díaz, who works in the accounts department of the state electricity company, said Villa Clara residents generally consumed between 250 and 300 kilowatt-hours a month, which should work out at around 100 pesos.

Since people are being charged a multiple of that amount, there is talk that corrupt power company staff have been overcharging customers. A source close to the power company’s management says some employees are facing a fraud investigation.

It is not uncommon for householders to defraud the electricity company themselves. In March, the power company’s commercial director for Santa Clara, Yoan Pérez Martín, told the local newspaper Vanguardia last March that 1,900 cases of electricity theft in private homes were uncovered last year. Most commonly, people ran a circuit around the meter to stop it recording usage. Offenders were fined 500 pesos each and had their power cut off for 72 hours.

However, the recent spate of large bills does not seem to reflect these penalties.

Power company inspectors are looking into the problem, but have not revealed any findings yet. However, the company’s head in Santa Clara, Pedro Luís Rodríguez Alonso, told CMHW radio that every allegation of over-billing would be investigated.

But for now, he said, “everyone has to pay for electricity, whatever the bill comes to”.

Rolando, who lives in the city’s Brisas del Oeste neighbourhood, says he does not plan to pay.

“People aren’t to blame if the meter readers haven’t done their job properly,” said. “I’m under no obligation to pay the 384 pesos they charged me for February, still less the 505 pesos they charged in March. I’m not even going to complain. They can cut off my electricity and that will be that.”