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.

26 thoughts on “Makers in Cuba: DIY Becomes do or Die

  1. tim dolan says:

    Adversity brings out the best in some people. Clearly Castro provided the adversity and the people responded positively!

    1. Stett Holbrook says:

      That’s a good way of putting it.

    2. Gunther says:

      Thats a great way to put it! I wonder if the boom in the maker movement here in the US (and world) is in response to a similar adversity? Is a maker movement a sign of the “free market” not providing the people with what they need at the price they deem beneficial?
      It feels that way to me, we are certainly more privileged and secure than those in Cuba but suffer from more sneaking and under lying problems, like expensive costs of living and low wages.

      1. tim dolan says:

        Not sure why you bring up free markets in the context of Cuba? You could make substitute “dictatorship” for free markets in that context. I think that adversity is the issue and the cause of the adversity is not important, rather it is how people respond to the challenge.

        This is why teachers present challenging problems, why people compete against themselves or others in teams, why makers challenge each other because it brings out the best.

        1. Gunther says:

          Among other things (such as adversity) lack of a free market is a direct result of communism and nationalism which are the symptoms of this dictatorship. A lack of a free market has everything do with this adversity you speak of, whether you would like to acknowledge it or not, as you say “the cause of the adversity is not important.” Well thats fine you can choose to ignore it, I’m choosing to address. I like making connections between similar trends. So to my original question, is our maker movement here a result of a similar adversity/Lack-of-a-free-market? More importantly is adversity what inspires making?

          1. tim dolan says:

            I agree. Free Markets provide one brand of adversity (I am all for free markets) while dictatorships provide another. The key however is the response to adversity.

            Athletes are trained under stress (another word for adversity). You slowly add stress to the runner, swimmer etc. you get improved endurance and performance. Too much stress (adversity) will damage you, but manageable amounts cause the organism to adapt. The same thing happens in school, you start simple and gradually add more setting higher and higher standards.

            I am trying to keep this apolitical, I prefer free markets with a heavy dose of law. However regardless of the system, humans of all kinds respond to adversity and adapt, regardless of the cause of the adversity.

  2. Phil says:

    It’s a fallacy to assume that just because a country has a different culture and political system that its people are any less creative.

    Cubans have always been innovators out of necessity. After the U.S. screwed up its relationship with Cuba the country became more isolated. The fact that it’s an island country didn’t help either.

    Most of the cars owned by individuals in Cuba are American cars from before the revolution. While a 1950s car in the U.S. is an antique, they’re commonplace in Cuba. Backyard mechanics have developed incredibly innovative tricks to keep the cars running and make replacements or substitutes for failed parts which can’t be repaired.

    1. ka1axy says:

      I’ll try not to be political here, but I have never understood the US refusal to make up with Cuba. Sure, the Castro regime isn’t a beacon of democracy, but that hasn’t stopped us from supporting many other (worse) regimes across the world.
      We really missed an opportunity to extend a helping hand to Cuba when the USSR collapsed. Isn’t it time to let the past drop, make nice with the people running Cuba and see if we can, together, improve life for the people of Cuba? The rest of the world doesn’t seem to think they’re so bad (I have a friend in Australia who recently vacationed there)

      1. tim dolan says:

        That is a political statement and adds nothing to the thread. You are complaining about why people made the decisions they mad. What is of interest here is how the Cubans responded to adversity, not why or how that adversity came to be.

  3. Henry says:

    What he says at 7:27 describes exactly the mindset change that needed to happen for me to really dive into making.

    It’s not a fan, it’s a motor, blade, electical wire, housing, stand, and grill. Once I realized that everything was made of stuff, and not just an outline of an object that does a thing by magic, I opened my mind to the possibility of fixing things I’d never fixed before, using things in different ways, taking parts from one thing for use on another, and basic repurposing.

    I haven’t been able to describe that change that had to happen, but this video does it perfectly.

    1. Stett Holbrook says:

      I agree Henry. That was one of the best parts of the doc and it perfectly described the hacker/maker mindset. It’s a liberating way of seeing the physical world.

  4. OyiaBrown says:

    Reblogged this on Oyia Brown.

  5. juannavarro says:

    For Cubans, what you call hacking, was just daily life for us, even here In South FLorida.
    As a Cuban American, we almost make fun of each other for the jury rigs that we would pull in our households, like here in Hialeah FL. This comes form a long line of doing with what you have, plain and simple. Even before the revolution, we always figured a way to do thing, and now, in our very modern home,s we sit around talking about “hacks” family members did in necessity: Cooking a Chicken using foil and a Light Bulbs, Using a panty hose for the belt of a car, straightening a frame using chain and the trunk of a tree.
    As much as i don’t agree with what has happened in Cuba, and hate the Castro regime for not only repression but outright murder of my people, I am proud of the fact that I come from a long time of hackers.

  6. GilmoresBottle says:

    Loved the movie, captures a real Cuban attitude of disrespect for cultural baggage of the manufactured object and their focus on pure utility, the now of function. Yesterday a fan, today a water pump, because a water pump is more important today. This is what upcycling looks like: nothing is trashed, its reused for something else. I think this is what the authors of Cradle to Cradle had in mind in describing sustainability and the endless recycling of material in the technological cycle (as opposed to the generation of soil in the renewable cycle).

    Cuba is the only country in the world developing sustainably according to the World Wildlife Fund’s 2006 Living Planet Report with 80% HDI and a Ecological footprint well within its biome carrying capacity.

    There is an intrinsic value, even a beauty, in the utility of the man-made object which is only heightened when it is remanufactured to meet a newer, more pressing, utility. I hope this collection of objects finds a home in a museum with on-line access – we’re all going to need it by about 2050 when we hit the wall of resource depletion.

    BTW, the army “mend-it” manual was commissioned by the current president, Raul Castro in 1994.

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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