Friday, October 28, 2016

Objects of Necessity in Cuba

How Cuba's economic isolation prompted a wave of inventive upcycling.

The History

The questions surrounding upcycling are often divided into two categories. The small, "how does one do their part?"; and the large, "How can we work tougher to change the world?" We can begin to answer these questions by looking to the ingenuity of impoverished nations.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, and their resulting cessation of aid and market support, Cuba entered a depression known as "The Special Period in Time of Peace." The US embargo that had been in place for thirty years limited Cuban economic growth, and an overreliance on  now absent foreign aid left the country in shambles. The first US embargo was instated following Cuban nationalization of American-owned oil refineries in 1960, but American investors and businesses had already began to pull out of Cuba, taking with them engineers and scientists. Two years later, in 1962, the embargo was extended to cover most forms of imports, and it was extended again in 1999 by President Clinton.

As a reaction to the embargo, and the exporting of specialists by the US, President Castro urged Cubans to learn to repair the machines and technology that had, for they might be stuck with their appliances and infrastructure for some time. The government released The Book for the Family, a handyman guide to fixing everything, and two years later With Our Own Efforts was published from recipes and inventions sent in to the government by citizens. This marks the beginning of Cuba's inventiveness of design. A carnivorous reshaping of broken components and everyday objects born from the necessity of isolation and poverty.

The same embargo, despite consistent protestations from the UN General Assembly, and recent talks between President Obama and President Castro, still remains in place today. But, with these talks came an easing of travel bans, and a renewed American interest in the island nation. Through the work of Ernesto Oroza, a Cuban artist and designer, many of the objects fashioned by handy and inventive Cubans have been revealed to the world. Below are a few examples.

The Soviet Aurika

A Soviet made washing machine (left) found in many Cuban homes. It contained a formidable, hardy electric motor that was used to make many different objects (sanders, motorized bicycles, fans, shoe-shiners, etc). (source)

Tray Antennas

Made from simple, tin mess trays these antennas allowed households to receive radio signals for televised broadcast. They are pervasive in Cuba. (source)

Battery Chargers

This simple device allows for the recharging of hearing aid batteries. Made from harvested electrical components. (source)


An ingenious invention that motorized bicycles. They were far cheaper, and easier, to maintain than the often malfunctioning automobiles. Notice the fuel tank, a plastic bottle mounted to the bike frame. (source)


Crop Sprayer

A six row pesticide sprayer. Increasing the efficiency of what is, in many parts of Cuba,
still a manpowered job. (source)

Instead of seeing the devices they were disassembling as washing machines or radios the inventors saw the parts that made them, and how those parts could be used to create something new, something functional. This is what Oroza calls "Technological Disobedience." Their refuse, motors, electronics, and even utensils became the building blocks of a society cutoff from the world. We can turn to those that are cut off from the world, people that don't have much to work with, to find upcycling inspiration. By observing necessity many useful solutions can be discovered.

More on this subject can be found at Ernesto Oroza's website here and at the technological disobedience website here. This post focused on the functional inventions of Cuba, but the art born from this movement is equally important. Explore.

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