March 30, 2017 / 11:06 PM / in 4 months

Hit by Venezuela shortage, Cuba to restrict premium gasoline sales

HAVANA, March 30 (Reuters) - Cuba will stop selling premium grade gasoline except to tourists starting Saturday due to a fuel crunch affecting Venezuela, its oil-rich ally and key trading partner.

Cuba's leadership has yet to announce the measure publicly, but a government source confirmed the contents of an official memo that has circulated on social media outlets this week.

The memo has already been "sent by official means to those implicated," said the source, who was unauthorized to speak to about the matter and requested anonymity.

Cuba has become increasingly reliant on Venezuela for refined oil products, even as the latter wrestles with shortages of those products at home. Last week, Venezuela faced its first nationwide shortage of motor fuel in five years.

The OPEC nation has one of the world's largest crude reserves but must import components for motor fuels and products crucial to dilute its extra heavy oil. Payment delays to providers have delayed deliveries.

Cuba cannot easily replace Venezuelan supplies as these are subsidized and the Communist-ruled island is strapped for cash.

Most vehicles in Cuba, including its vintage American cars and Soviet-era Ladas, use regular fuel. But modern cars, belonging to state and joint ventures as well as diplomats and other foreigners, run on higher-octane, so-called special fuel or premium.

"CUPET will not be delivering special fuel throughout April," said the memo, circulating on social media.

"The special fuel remaining in stock at the gas stations from April 1 will only be sold ... to tourists, until the inventory is depleted," added the memo, using the acronym of the state oil monopoly CubaPetroleo.

One diplomat based in Havana said embassy workers had been advised to stock up on special fuel now and to carpool.

"Special fuel is going to disappear," said Victor, a worker at a gas station in the business district of Vedado. "We have a small reserve left, but we aren't supplying any."

The government memo suggested motorists replace premium with regular grade fuel. But a worker at a joint venture, which received the memo through official channels, said an auto service provider had recommended against using regular in its Mercedes-Benz cars.

"It is bad for the engines," she said. "But what can you do, if there is no special fuel?" (Additional Reporting by Marc Frank in Havana and Marianna Parraga in Houston)

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