Posted on Saturday, 04.26.14
Cubans "make do" with odd inventions
• Shower head: a plastic bottle with holes
• Eye liner: shoeshine paste
• TV antenna: metal cafeteria trays
• Cooking griddle: Iron turned upside down
BY JUAN O. TAMAYO
In a country where Fidel Castro once proposed breeding mini-cows for
pasturing in backyards, it should be no surprise that Cubans have become
masters of improvisations and inventions in the face of their myriad
They punch holes in the bottom of a water bottle and presto, it's a
shower head. If they can't find AA batteries for the TV remote control,
they use a rubber band to attach a C battery, solder in some wires and
MacGyver himself would have approved of roasting hot dogs and hamburgers
on the seat of a metal chair, dropping a raw egg into a car radiator to
plug a leak and using a bar of soap to stop a drip from a vehicle's oil pan.
"The tendency is to think that Cubans are real smart. But the reality is
that there have been so many shortages, a super-precarious economic
situation," said Cuban-born Miami designer Ernesto Oroza, who has
collected the inventions since the mid-1990s.
Cubans have been "resolviendo" — loosely translated as "making do" —
since shortages of all types began hitting the island in the early
1960s, shortly after the U.S. government slapped the first trade
sanctions on the Castro government.
The state-controlled media regularly extol the virtues of Cuban
ingenuity, like the sugar mill workers who built replacements for
U.S.-made parts, or the peasant who built their own windmills and
electricity generator and parts for their tractors.
"The revolution injected Cubans with inventiveness to survive the
shortages created by the Americans, and now the Cubans use it to survive
the deficiencies of the revolution," Oroza said.
In one of his many and notoriously failed attempts at improvisation,
Castro proposed in 1987 breeding cows down to the size of dogs, so that
families could keep them in urban yards and resolve a shortage of milk.
But the shortages hit crisis levels in the early 1990s, after the former
Soviet Union halted its annual subsidies to the island of up to $6
billion, the Cuban economy shrank by 35 percent and imported items all
but disappeared from store shelves.
Some of the inventions are clearly more than risky.
With gasoline becoming scarce and expensive, some Cubans worked out ways
of converting their car and truck motors to natural gas, and put the
potentially explosive containers in the trunks of their vehicles.
Bare electrical wires connected to cans or short pieces of pipe were
used as water heaters for showers, and a rusted-out gasoline tank in an
old vehicle was replaced by a couple of plastic jugs set dangerously
close to the hot motor.
Other inventions were simply ingenious.
An iron turned upside down became a griddle, paper clips held up a
shower curtain, a 55-gallon drum turned into a pizza oven and a wick
pushed through a tube of toothpaste and set in a jar of kerosene
provided light when the electricity failed.
Part of a car's suspension became a bracket for mounting a TV on a wall,
and a couple of electrical bits and pieces became a device for
recharging batteries that are not supposed to be chargeable.
In the best-known inventions, metal food trays filched from state-run
cafeterias were turned into TV antennas, and small gasoline motors added
to bicycles became bare-bones motorcycles known as "Rikimbilis."
Women trying to dress up used colored classroom chalk for makeup,
shoeshine paste for their eyelashes, ground battery charcoal to darken
their hair and the antacid Alusil as a hair gel, Havana blogger Regina
Coyula wrote in October.
Oroza recalled that in the early years of the Castro revolution, there
was even a group designed to promote the improvisations and inventions,
the National Association of Innovators and Rationalizers.
Even in 1991, he added, the Cuban military and the Federation of Cuban
Women printed a book on "making do," with articles typical of Popular
Mechanics and instructions on how to make items such as slingshots.
A year later, the two entities published a second book with the ideas
for gadgets, work-arounds and herbal medicines that had been sent in by
readers, proudly titled "With our Own Efforts."
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