“Worker, build your machine!”
So Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s proclaimed to Cuba’s industrial sector, shortly after the triumph of the evolutionary movement he helped lead. The year was 1961, and Cuba, increasingly isolated, was experiencing an exodus of foreign companies and investment due to the unfriendly market policies of Fidel Castro’s nascent government. The start of the now famous United States embargo against Cuba meant the large-scale departure of material resources from an island that once relied heavily on American cash and imports. With restrictions on entrepreneurship and individual enterprise, the economy hit rock bottom in the 1970s.
Perhaps foreseeing a future that demanded self-sufficiency, Guevara—then Cuba’s Minister of Industries—offered the first ideological push for what would become a way of life for generations of Cubans to come—Cubans who would have no choice but to build and repair, over and over again, both the state factory machines and the smaller machines in their homes. From the endless, ongoing restoration of the iconic 1950s Buicks to the creation of baby toys made from milk cans and dried beans, fabricating goods not officially available on the island became an essential skill.
Castro’s newly formed socialist government nationalized foreign companies and converted workers into the new “bosses” of the industrial sector. He urged them take on reparation jobs and to create spare parts. People started viewing dilapidated machines as the country’s biggest enemy. A drill without a cylinder, a belt saw without a pulley, a worn out mold—these mutilated artifacts terrorized the new society like wounded zombies.
The empty spaces in the machines paralyzed the cogs driving the revolution. The workers started to fill the spaces, which they would do so many times over so many years that machines now have more pieces made from the repairs than from the original parts. The workshops gave names for the assembled or built-from-scratch contraptions; some stuck, others that did not. If a Cuban engineer had returned to the island after 10 years in exile, he’d no longer be an expert. In fact, despite his training, he wouldn’t recognize the contraptions growing out the hands of the more crude practice of design. Whatever he knew about the internal workings of an American technology would already have been substituted for a cruder but equally productive design practice.
This first wave of makers left a trail of invention that changed the course of interacting with technology in Cuba.
Cubans began to bring this repair-mindset home, turning their own households into laboratories. The same engineer would, during his day shift, repair the engine of a Soviet MIG15 jet fighter and, in the evening—faced with a country-wide shortage of matches—build an electric lighter out of a pen and light bulb.
Here lies some irony: The technological disobedience—which the revolution promoted as an alternative to the country’s stalled productive sector—became the most reliable resource for Cubans to navigate the inefficiencies of the state political system. Workers who had devoted their imagination and resourcefulness to keeping the revolution on its feet were then forced to employ those attributes to endure lives short on necessities.
Lack of trust in the success of the revolution turned Cuban homes into warehouses for all kinds of objects—anything that could be useful but unavailable down the line. The accumulation of products led workers to radically question industrial processes and mechanisms. They started looking at objects not with the eyes of an
engineer but those of an artisan. Every object could potentially be repaired or reused, even in a different context from its original design.
Accumulation—in this case an automatic gesture—separated the object from the Western intent and lifecycle it was destined for. This is technological disobedience.
When people held onto things, they also kept the technical principles and an idea of how they fit together. In any critical moment, they would scratch their heads to conjure the exact piece that could solve the problem. When the power went out, the fan broke, or the chair snapped, the family kept an ear out for technological whispers from the patios, under the beds, or from obscure corners of rooms guarding piles of old things—either parts or in their entirety.
Seemingly insignificant things were assigned new, useful tasks. The tops of penicillin vials have become the best solution for valves on pressure cookers. Deodorant canisters proved excellent electrical switches (close the lid to turn the electricity on!). Defective fluorescent tubes now make up 3D picture frames. An old 33-rpm vinyl, cut properly, would serve as a fan blade—and its creators could reproduce copies of it. An old and deteriorated Eagle kerosene lamp reappeared when power outages became common, and sometimes a milk bottle or gas tank functioned as the lampshade. Each creation’s new appearance and new function made it unique.
Cubans in this time knew just a few brands: Caribe and Kim TVs, Orbita fans, and Aurika washing machines. The communist market of the 70s prioritized production with a social end: clones of state-commissioned chairs, for example, were distributed across the island. That people thus accumulated identical goods meant that similarly ingenious repair methods popped up throughout. Standardized metal trays in schools, for example, were appropriated by the “maker class” to create a product then not officially in existence on the island: the TV antenna.
No one’s really sure whether the idea inspired each person individually or people actively taught each other. The tray was the only accessible metal for this task—but was its secondary use an inevitable result of the mix of necessity, standard availability of goods, and creative use of them?
Another object mysteriously appeared in many houses: the kerosene lamp. Built with a cylindrical glass container—13 cm high and wide—and inside, dipped in kerosene, a wick holder made from a tube of toothpaste. The container, produced by Comecon—the now-defunct alliance of socialist countries—served dual purposes as a fuel vessel and lampshade. This transformed Cuba’s most recognizable container into its most common kerosene lamp. Necessity and standardized resources meant replicable solutions and repeated technological disobedience.
Throughout the 80s, Soviet subsidies created a decade of relative economic stability and, with that, a greater abundance of resources. Then, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and collapse of the Soviet Union, the Cuban government proclaimed a “Special Period” of extreme rationing and shortages. In 1993, a desperate new law finally permitted—with restrictions—businesses engaged in making and tinkering. A new era of creative enterprise was forced open.
At the start of the Special Period, instantaneous substitutes, objects, and provisional fixes let Cubans hold on until the end of the crisis. This built worker confidence in homebrewed construction, transport, clothing, or appliances. But these were just reparative solutions of a destroyed or insufficient material reality—and ultimately, just the waiting room for the strongest wave of revolutionary creativity.
While reinventing their lives, an unconscious mentality emerged. As a surgeon becomes desensitized to wounds, Cubans became desensitized to designed objects. They stopped seeing the original purpose of the object; instead it became a sample of parts. This is the first Cuban expression of disobedience in their relationship with objects—a growing disrespect for an object’s identity and for the truth and authority it embodies.
After opening, breaking, repairing, and using them so often at their convenience, the makers ultimately disregarded the signs that make occidental objects a unity, a closed identity. Cubans do not fear the emanating authority that brands like Sony, Swatch, or even NASA, command. If something is broken, it will be fixed—somehow. If it could even be conceived as usable to repair other objects, they might as well save it, either in parts or in its entirety. A new future awaits.
An emblematic object of this building is the “fan-phone”. An improvised repairman remembered, when his fan’s base broke, that he had kept somewhere a broken phone from Communist Germany. He recalled it because the Orbit fan base somewhat resembled the prismatic pyramidal shape of the phone; the inspired creator was interested not in associations or meanings but in the formal analogy based on size and structure. The repaired, rebuilt, and repurposed fan was, at the same time, an outline of the cunning abilities of the individual, a diagram of the accumulation in his house, and an image of his disobedience.
Within the process of repair, repurposing, and reinvention, three key concepts speak to an elevated degree of subversion. Firstly, reconsidering the industrial object from an artisan’s perspective. Secondly, denying the traditional lifecycle of a Western object. And lastly, substituting traditional roles with alternative functions that meet demand.
In the sense of restoration, repairing legitimizes an object’s qualities and allows the maker to become acquainted with an object differently. But sometimes repairing means creating a novel tool; these reparations are influenced by the more radical processes of reinvention and repurposing.
A telling case is that of a charger for non-rechargeable batteries developed in Havana in 2005. Enildo, the device’s creator, wanted to recharge batteries for his wife’s hearing aid. He could connect his new charger to an outlet and, in just 20 minutes, provide 20 days of battery life.
Like Dr. Frankenstein creating his monster, Enildo pieced together diodes from an old radio, fragments of a conductor, and little pieces of sheet metal, placing them atop a piece of plastic pulled from the radio. The new charger, stripped of its original technical purpose, summons memories of diagrams from science class. The goal was to recharge the battery; how it’s done questions the technical and commercial logic scribed upon the batteries.
The reparation, refunctionalization, and reinvention show leaps of imagination in opposition to the concepts of innovation favored by the logic of Western mass production. And each leap allowed for some small adjustment to the poverty that most of the disobedient inventors lived under.
Technological disobedience in Cuba is not just about the transgression of authority of industrial design and the way of life it projects onto its users. This practice also detours the overarching restrictions of the Cuban system. Houses all over contain rebellious inventions: lunch trays receiving television signals; chopped-up salsa LPs blowing cool air; deodorant cans turning lights on and off; and electrical components now reviving non-reusable batteries.
But technological disobedience doesn’t respect boundaries. It wiggles its way in to the social, political, and economic—realms that inspire subversion in their own rights. It keeps life flowing for those who participate. It interrupts the endless flow of Western goods and the constant push of communism on the island. And it keeps inspiring hands to create things that will make life just a little better for their owners.
Illustration by Ashley Kircher.