In Depth

Cubans 'make do' with odd inventions

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 scarcities.

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 surf away.

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.”