Perhaps you are already aware that there are over 120,000 American built automobiles from the 1930s,’40s and ’50s on the road in Cuba. This feat is perhaps the premier example of Cuban imagination and ingenuity.
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Will you join me on a short journey? It is only 90 miles from our southern shores yet life there is unimaginably different from ours. It is a country where “necessity as the mother of invention” is on always on display. I am speaking about the island of Cuba, where in my five visits I have been given a street level PHD education in “value” and “resourcefulness.”
Cuba has suffered from a lengthy list of incidents that have left it economically devastated and have cut off its bi-directional supply chain to the rest of the world. Once a booming economy, after Castro’s nationalization in 1961 the US placed an embargo on the import and export of goods and materials that remains in effect to this day. With the stroke of a pen Cuba lost its largest customer for sugar and its main supplier of virtually everything.
In the years that followed the Soviet Union stepped in as both a customer and supplier, somewhat improving the situation, but their own collapse in 1991 left the harbors of Cuba empty overnight. Since then it has been up and down, but never up for long. Now Cuba faces another devastating blow having sealed its borders to tourists as a result of COVID-19. This is a country that depends heavily on remittances from relatives in America and tourism. Remittances are now reduced as unemployment becomes part of Cuban Americans’ situation, and tourism is suddenly producing zero revenue.
Having few natural resources, Cuba now faces yet another monumental challenge. But challenge has been a way of life for Cubans for generations, and the solution for them has always been resourcefulness – making the best of what you have at hand and working together as a society. It is hard to overstate the situation when I state that absolutely nothing is wasted in Cuba.
Cuba’s historical misfortunes have left her with only the most minimalistic supply chain. A single screw, a plastic bag, a piece of cardboard, and even a small piece of string will be saved, as a purpose ultimately awaits it.
Perhaps you are already aware that there are over 120,000 American built automobiles from the 1930’s 40’s and 50’s on the road in Cuba. This feat is perhaps the premier example of Cuban imagination and ingenuity. These “classics” are kept running by the amazing skills of the Cuban mechanic. He is an inventor, innovator, artist, and master of resourcefulness. He works with extremely limited access to parts, materials, or tools.
Manuals? Not a chance. He makes the parts he needs from what is at hand or what can be reclaimed or refashioned from something else. He manufactures his own brake pads. He melts and forms broken windshields into new ones. He cleans and reuses oil filters. His compressor is powered by an old Soviet chain saw engine and a drive belt from a tractor. He has his own secret recipe for autobody repair paste. It hardens like iron!
He knows how to fix a leaky radiator using guava and banana pieces. A discarded coat hanger can be used as wire, carburetor linkage, or a clamp. He salvages from decommissioned freight trains, knowing that each part can be repurposed. He is the undisputed master of cut and paste. He will never throw anything away. This wizard of automotive miracles can keep a 70-year-old car on the road. Where will your car be in 70 years? A look under the hood of one of these old American autos reveals a Frankenstein gumbo of metal, wires, relays, and mis-matched and unrecognizable parts. Could this automotive Rube Goldberg contraption actually run? Yes!
In the town of Cienfuegos, I watched as horseshoes and their nails were fashioned from recycled re-bars. Manufactured horseshoes are unavailable in Cuba. The Cuban blacksmith has solved this problem.
Using sheet metal and a welding torch, 1950’s American sedans are often converted into vehicles that can carry as many as 12 passengers. They look surreal but solve a problem. Since only 3% of Cubans own cars, these strange looking car-truck crossbreeds are an important part of the Cuban transportation infrastructure.
Here in America when an umbrella reaches end-of-life, it is destined for the trash. You will simply go to the local big-box store, (or even the Dollar store) and replace it. In Cuba there are no big-box stores and a dollar is real money, so you take it to the man who can repair it. If a new umbrella were even available it would most likely be unaffordable. Using simple materials, tools, and a needle and thread there is a street craftsman who will make that umbrella functional again. He may in fact reincarnating this very one for the Nth time. An umbrella is a luxury and has to last for years. The concept of discarding it is inconceivable.
Shoes, clothing, suitcases, zippers, and countless other items can be repaired indefinitely. A milk jug or small length of garden hose each has an endless variety of potential uses. A plastic bag can be reused until it looks like a strainer, and even then there may be a use for it. A bottlecap makes a fine washer for a screw or nail. I have even seen them used a checkers. The bottom can be cut off of an empty wine bottle and it can then be used as a housing for an outdoor light. Throw away a broken lamp or extension cord? Never. They can be repaired. Most extension cords are in fact hand-made here in Cuba. When things are unavailable or unaffordable, thinking differently, and knowing somebody who knows somebody is a survival skill. It takes a village.
I have seen functioning American made sewing machines, washing machines, electric can openers, fans, and even tube televisions from the 1950’s being used daily. Where could a Cuban get these today at an affordable price? Should any of these need to be resuscitated, there is someone whose specialty is to do so at an affordable price. I have seen houses built from scrap lumber – not beautiful, but functional, and a roof over a family’s head. Fishing line used for guitar strings? Yes. A burned-out lightbulb makes a useable fishing bobber. How about fishhooks made from sharpened pieces of coat hangers? Yes, and they work, and put food on the dinner table. A basketball hoop made from re-bars? Quite common.
A pair of glasses is a precious, expensive, and difficult to procure luxury item. If needed, there is a man who can either repair your frames or put your lenses into “new-used” frames. It is about function – not fashion.
Need a mattress? There are no mattress stores, but there is a man who will make one for you, or more likely repair your current one. Think of it as a custom-made mattress limited only by the limited selection of fabrics he has. The mattress frame might be 60 years old, but new springs, padding, and fabric, can make a world of difference. His price is affordable, so you are grateful.
I will close with what is in my opinion is the pièce de résistance, and perhaps the most unique feat of all. Cuban men are cigar smokers, and a cigar and lighter need one-another. In America, disposable lighters that are four for a dollar can be found at any retail checkout. For us, these truly are “disposable”. In Cuba, lighters are rarely available. For a cigar smoker, the lighter is indispensable and needed throughout the day. Would you believe me if I tell you that there are street craftsman who using tiny tools, tweezers, and small pics, can make an empty disposable lighter functional? It is true. A new flint will be installed, and it will be refueled it with insecticide. Yes – insecticide, and it works perfectly. For a few pesos and a few minutes of waiting, your lighter is back on-line. Happiness!
These are but a few examples of the “make do with what’s available” approach that is part of daily life in Cuba. There are many more. Cuban tradesmen and craftsmen are like skilled chefs who with a few simple ingredients can create their own small automotive, mechanical, and electrical delights. I am certainly not suggesting that we adopt this in as a way of life in any manner here in the land of plenty, but there is food for thought herein. I will close without a lecture amigo. Take away what you wish from the resourcefulness of this island nation of 11 million citizens that understands that nothing needs to be disposable.
Howard Axelrod is an Ashland, Massachusetts resident, travel writer and photographer He has photographed in 85 countries on six continents and has travelled to 42 of the U.S. states. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.