Motembo, oil and Nazi submarines

HAVANA — It all began before Admiral Columbus landed in Cuba. It may have happened when — during an areíto, a dance feast of the Siboneyans — one of the dancers stomped so hard on the ground that fire burst from it. That may be why the region was dubbed Motembo, which, in the native language, meant “land that expels fire.” For the natives, it was probably a sign from Mabuya, one of their gods.

More than three centuries later, in 1881, the Motembo mines began to produce petroleum and asphalt, so much asphalt that, according to urban legends in Cuba and New York, many of the streets in the Big Apple were covered with alphaltite from Motembo.

Then Motembo began to resemble the Far West towns during the Black Gold Fever, with bars, seedy hotels, rum and the attendant fauna. Even dictator Gerardo Machado paid a visit to see how Mabuya vomited fire.

Years passed and World War Two came, a conflict that Cuba joined in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor. They say that, when Hitler heard the news, he looked on the map to find the defiant island that, during World War One, had defeated Germany with its salvos of sugar, according to that excellent book by Pablo de la Torriente Brau.

Once in World War Two — today’s war is episodic and waged with different resources — we continued to send sugar to the Allies and chasing Nazi submarines in the Caribbean and part of the Atlantic. The sea became a center of operations for the Nazis in their mission to sink the Allied ships that carried support to a besieged Europe and logistics to the troops.

The Cuban Navy fought hard and managed to sink a German submarine. The news may have angered the Führer — the nerve of that Navy lieutenant in that minuscule spot on the map!

Gen. Fulgencio Batista Zaldívar ruled Cuba at that time (1940-1944). He phoned Navy Lt. Mario Ramírez, who on May 15, 1942, commanded the submarine chaser CS-13, and berated him for his excessive eagerness in sinking an “enemy” sub. Evidently, the idea was to play a war game by patrolling the seas, not by sinking German U-boats.

The event was reported by Edwards Ennis, director of the Alien Enemy Control Unit, who said: “Beginning in early 1942, German submarines were very successful on the Atlantic coast. […] We have information that they are being supplied with fuel by Germans in Cuba.” (*)

The fact is that many German submarines docked in Cuban bays, especially Matanzas Bay. And the presence of German networks in our territory is debatable, unlike the corruption brought to us by Columbus. Or didn’t he trick the first watchman who sighted land?

An uncle of mine, Fernando Llaneras Álvarez, who died years ago, a former commander in Cuba’s War Navy, served during World War Two patrolling the Atlantic coast and the keys north of the island. Fernando left Cuba in 1960 and decided to tour the Nordic countries. A sailor at heart, he wished to see how the new Vikings navigated the famous fjords, where skill and boldness are essential to mariners.

Aboard a ship, he spoke to the sailors and identified himself as a former officer in the Cuban Navy. They took him to the ship’s bridge and introduced him to the captain.

Fernando told me that the German officer had commanded one of the many Nazi submarines that operated in the area during World War Two. During the conversation, he told Fernando that he could sail with his eyes closed into Matanzas Bay, one of Cuba’s deepest and best, as he described it. He would stay there overnight and resupply with food and fuel, he said.

Where did the fuel come from?

Some say that it came from the Shell Oil Company depot in Havana Bay, from which it was extracted and shipped to the island’s eastern region. If, according to the German officer, one of the most likely destinations was Matanzas Bay, we could lean toward Motembo, given its nearness to the Matanzas-Cárdenas are and the keys north of Villa Clara — precisely the area where today we find MEO Australia’s Block 9.

That speculation grows stronger when we hear some elderly residents of Motembo and Sagua la Grande (in Villa Clara province), whose grandparents worked in the wells, recall stories that every evening several trucks loaded with fuel departed for the west, toward Cárdenas or Matanzas.

As it happened, the Cuban sub chaser that sank the German U-boat was led by U.S. planes toward its objective, initially detected between Matanzas and Cárdenas.

So, Motembo, “the land that expels fire,” has some interesting connections to our political history. More may surface later.

(*) Report on the Resupplying of U-boats. Memorandum from the Alien Enemy Control Unit to the U.S. Congress, May 1942.

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