Makers in Cuba: DIY Becomes do or Die

Craft & Design
Makers in Cuba: DIY Becomes do or Die
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Make photo intern Gunther Kirsch forward me this video. It’s a great mini-documentary about Cuban’s resilience and inventiveness during the “special period in the time of peace.”

That was Fidel Castro’s euphemism for the isolation and crippling financial crisis that followed the fall of the Soviet Union 1989. Cuban’s had been suffering privations since the 1960s and as a result created a DIY culture that is more about survival than weekend hobbies. Necessity is the mother of invention. So is hunger.

The documentary features Cuban designer and artist Ernesto Oroza. When he couldn’t find work as an industrial designer in Cuba (there was precious little industry to design for) he and a friend began exploring the island to document and collect uniquely Cuban forms of technology. For example, one of the most common hacks around Cuban is the aluminum lunch tray antennae, which is just what it sounds like.

To help Cuba weather the financial (and political) crisis, the Cuban army published a DIY guide for repurposing and repairing broken goods and giving them a second life. The manual covered everything from repairing appliances to cooking dinner. One famous recipe explained how to turn a grapefruit rind into a “steak.” You simply marinated the rind in garlic, onion, and lemon juice to remove the bitterness and then fried it up in a pan. Dinner is served.

“As the crisis became more severe, people’s creativity grew more powerful and everywhere you looked you saw solutions to the needs faced at the time,” Oroza said.

Oroza called this kind of innovation and hacking “technological disobedience”, disrespecting the “authority” of objects and what they were “for”, i.e. turning a motor from a water pump into a bike motor or fashioning a TV tray into an antennae. We call it hacking.

Maybe the small measure of freedom and comfort this disobedience brought helped the Cuban people endure a political system that didn’t offer them much freedom or comfort. It’s also testament to  the maker spirit under challenging circumstances.

For me, Cuba’s experience raises some interesting questions about making. If necessity really is the mother of invention, do great inventions require great needs? What happens to the maker spirit when material needs are met? What are the differences between making for fun and making as a matter of survival? What can those of us in the land of plenty learn from Cuba’s technological disobedience? Let me know what you think in the comments below. Please, no anti/pro-Castro rants.

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Stett Holbrook is editor of the Bohemian, an alternative weekly in Santa Rosa, California. He is a former senior editor at Maker Media.

He is also the co-creator of Food Forward, a documentary TV series for PBS about the innovators and pioneers changing our food system.

View more articles by Stett Holbrook


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