Cuba’s Madres (y Padres) of Invention
Looking back at a rare visit with the artists and self-taught engineers who have helped keep Cuba running while technological time stood still.
Written and photographed by ROB WATERS
Editor’s note: In the years since this story was first published, in 2016, Cuba has lurched from a period of hope for reintegration and economic improvement back to some of its deepest isolation and privation. The most recent events are more fully treated in a new sidebar: “After a Glimpse at Free Trade, Cuba Spirals Downward.” The sidebar explains how a growing number of Cubans are applying their time-honored skill at inventing something from nothing (what Cubans call their culture of inventos) to reimagine a Cuban classic: daring departures from the island, mostly to the U.S. The main story, below, remains largely as first written—cast, like the original, in the present tense of the author’s experiences during his 2016 visit. Any updated reporting is noted accordingly.
My first encounter with what Cubans call inventos—the term they use for the hacks and gadgets they create to keep things working—comes before I have even left the Havana airport. I pass through an immigration queue staffed by agents in short skirts and fishnet stockings, head to the taxi stand, and a big, genial taxista named José Vigoa Ruiz ushers me into the front seat of his 1955 black Cadillac. As we roll and bounce our way into downtown Havana, Ruiz proudly describes his car. “The engine is British, the transmission is from a Ford van, the steering system is from a Mercedes Benz, the brake system is Toyota, and the electric windows are from a Korean jeep,” he says, with a triumphant sideways glance. “Only the body is original Cadillac.”
The main reason for all this adaptation, of course, is what the Cubans call el bloqueo (the blockade)—the U.S. embargo on trade with Cuba, which has been in place since 1960 and remains so today. (In 2015, the Obama administration relaxed the longstanding travel ban to Cuba, and opened a U.S. embassy in Havana, but it didn’t last; two years later, in June 2017, President Trump shut down U.S. re-engagement with Cuba.) The embargo long prohibited U.S. companies from selling Cuba products such as computers, farm tools, fertilizer, software, clothing—and, of course, cars and auto supplies. Cuba then compounded these privations by forbidding significant foreign investment, or even much private economic activity.
Over the decades, while most countries followed the U.S. embargo, Cuba did most of its trading with the Soviet Union and its allies. The fall of the Soviets, in 1991, left Cuba desperately short of oil and sent the economy into a tailspin—an era the Cubans refer to as el período especial—the special period. To avoid total disaster, Cuba loosened the strings of central control. Suddenly, people could open small businesses, sell their own produce, and entertain some forms of foreign investment. In the late 1990s, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez joined the effort, becoming Cuba’s new foreign patron. He shipped cheap oil to the island in exchange for medical services provided by thousands of Cuban doctors sent to work in Venezuela.
Today, Chavez is dead, oil prices have crashed, the Venezuelan economy and government are in crisis, and Cuba has a bad cold again. (Indeed, during my visit, in July of 2016,, the government announced new austerity measures and many Cubans spoke of the risks of a nuevo special period.) While a few countries, notably Canada, Spain, and especially China are making investments and selling goods to Cuba, most of the developed world has continued to follow America’s lead.
“In Cuba, you have a pendulum swinging back and forth between economic idealism and pragmatism,” says Theodore Henken, a sociologist at Baruch University in New York who has visited Cuba more than 25 times since 1997 to study its economic culture. Idealists want to uphold socialist values by rooting out changes that create income inequality, Henken says, while pragmatists want to reward quality work and encourage initiative. Each produces a reaction and response, keeping the Cuban economy in a sputtering limbo.
Cuba’s invento culture, and the large informal economy it has spawned, is the country’s most obvious response to these pressures. To survive in today’s world, cars and refrigerators somehow have to keep running. And indeed they do, thanks to Cuba’s inventores.
“What we now call the ‘maker culture’ in the world of the Internet has been around in Cuba for a long time,” Henken says. “Cubans had BnBs way before there was any air. They started a whole underground industry of private homestays (called casas particulares) back in the mid-90s, before it became a worldwide phenomenon to compete against the dominant hotel industry.”
Back in 2016, with the U.S. and Cuba engaged in a cautious dance of rapprochement, and about 150,000 Americans among the 3 million tourists who visited last year, the island was poised for change. “There will be more foreign investment, no doubt about it,” said Richard Feinberg, a professor of international political economy at the University of California-San Diego and the author of Open for Business: Building the New Cuban Economy, which was published less than a month ago.
Before that was expected to happen, and globalization’s voracious appetite descends with all its modern bells and whistles, I wanted to see the feats of everyday ingenuity that have allowed Cubans to get by for so long with so little. How, for instance, have Cubans maintained not only their legendary fleet of 1950s automobiles, but also their mattresses, appliances, plumbing fixtures, and musical instruments, to name just a few? If Cuba is a place frozen in time—an apt cliché too often repeated—let’s examine the contents of the time capsule and meet the people who have created it before it disappears.
During my visit, as we continue our drive into Havana, Ruiz tells me that he has done all the work on his car himself. When I ask him about inventos, he laughs. “Cuba is the land of inventos,” he says. “All Cubans are inventors and mechanics. If not, you better not have a car.”
Ruiz drops me off at my new home, a casa particular on the fifth floor of a six-story apartment building (with a working elevator!). The apartment is owned by a Cuban doctor and her husband, a music producer. The doctor—I’ll call her Marisal since many Cubans still fear government attention—has a government salary of about $60 a month, which means that the $40 I’m paying each night for bed and breakfast quickly exceeds her monthly earnings.
The next morning (after Marisal serves me eggs, toast, a plateful of tropical fruit, and strong Cuban coffee before running off to work), I leave for my first appointment. I am meeting Pepe Fabregas, a Cuban who now lives in Atlanta but returns frequently to help organize the local work of Horns to Havana, a New York-based charity. The group donates musical instruments to schools in Cuba; supports an instrument repair workshop, or taller, in Havana; and once a year brings a delegation of instrument-repair specialists from the U.S. to train and work with Cuban technicians.
I meet Pepe down the street and we hop into his rental car—a late-model Geely from China that has no need for inventos. China has emerged as Cuba’s principal trading partner, contributing more than $1 billion worth of goods a year since 2005, so Chinese products are now as evident on the streets of Havana as post-1960 U.S. products are absent. On our way to the taller, Pepe makes a stop in Centro Habana and I notice two men pulling on batches of white cotton material as they work on a large metal frame perched in the street by the curb. I step out to investigate and encounter my first colchoneros.
Colchoneros, or mattress repairmen, are a mainstay of Havana life, and everyone has a story about them—many of which have to do with getting ripped off. Since it’s only my second day in Havana, I figure I’ll have plenty of chances to meet more. So I snap a quick photo and climb back into the Geely. As it turns out, I don’t encounter another one for two weeks—despite a two-hour hunt by bicycle one afternoon.
When I do find one, a man who goes by the name Danger, he’s done for the day. We exchange phone numbers, and the next day he calls me collect (a widely employed trick for stretching the life of a phone card) and tries to negotiate a payment for an interview at his house. My Cuban friend and interpreter politely suggests that I decline. So my knowledge about colchoneros in Cuba ends up coming from friends and bloggers, especially an amusing account by Conner Gorry, an American writer who has lived in Cuba for more than a decade.
In a country where new mattresses can cost $375—a year’s salary for most people—many Cubans sleep on bedding that’s nearly as old as the Castro brothers. Colchoneros therefore don’t lack for business, despite their unsavory reputation. As Gorry described it, she and her Cuban husband had been suffering with a bad mattress for a long time when they heard shouts coming from the street one Saturday morning: “Reparación de colchones!” Outside, the street was full of neighbors with beds lined up for repair. Her husband bargained a man named Julio down from $60 to $35 and the colchoneros got to work.
“I stood by fascinated, watching as they tore off the cover and discovered…a layer of cardboard,” Gorry wrote in a blog post. “Old Haier refrigerator boxes mostly, with a couple of corrugated swatches filling it out.” The crew slashed her old mattress cover with knives, pulled out the old stuffing, recoiled the damaged metal springs, and stuffed it with new guata, or cotton filling. Then they stitched it back up with a new cover and collected their fee.
Soon after leaving the colchoneros in Centro Habana, we arrive at the Taller Nacional de Reparación de Instrumentos Musicales. The workshop (or taller), is located in a pale blue two-story house in the Miramar district, a residential neighborhood that, before the Revolution, was one of Havana’s most upscale enclaves. To get there, we drive along elegant Quinta Avenida, where stately mansions have been converted into diplomatic missions and where Starwood Hotels & Resorts has just become the first American chain to take over management of a property, the former Hotel Quinta Avenida.
At the taller, a fenced front yard is lined with palm trees and tropical bushes in green and red. A cello hangs outside the front door. Inside, on the walls of a cluttered workroom, crude metal tools and parts—rods, bolts, metal cutters, trombone slides—hang alongside the carcasses of trumpets, saxophones, and tubas. An odd-looking construction that I’m told is a drill press stands in one corner of the room. “This part,” says taller manager Marcel Quintana Rodriguez (known as Chiqui), pointing to the base of the drill press, “is the wheel of an old Soviet truck.” From there, a length of water pipe has been welded to a smaller wheel, also from a Russian vehicle. The drill is operated by a foot pedal that looks like it belongs to an electric piano or guitar.
The workshop is stacked with instruments from 64 different art schools across the island. Nearly all come from China, Chiqui says, and their condition is “mala, mala, mala”—bad, bad, bad. The technicians here repair them on behalf of the schools, which provide them for free to music students of all ages.
Chiqui’s workshop proves to be a trove of inventos. He mounts a trumpet onto a vise and cleans its bell with a burnishing tool made from a helicopter blade. (He scrounged the blade from a friend who works at a helicopter repair facility.) The vise is mounted on yet another invento — a steel plate bolted onto an arm that’s been welded to a pillar. It took a couple of hours to build the contraption, Chiqui tells me, but a week to find all the parts. He also made a special clamp to hold tubular parts (bells, slide tubes) for soldering, based on a photo he saw in a magazine. That’s vintage Chiqui, says Andy Frobig, the owner of a wind repair shop in Manhattan, who has made six trips to Cuba for Horns to Havana.
“As a repair tech, his greatest asset is that he’s completely fearless,” Frobig says. “He takes on a task for the first time as if he’d been doing it for 20 years, and generally, it works out. The taller is a very special place to me and a reminder that the only tool that’s absolutely necessary in this work is between your ears.”
At one point, Rafael Aquino, a 23-year-old member of the Cuban national orchestra, arrives to pick up his Russian-made bass. “In a place with few good basses, this is gold,” Aquino tells me, cradling his Russian instrument. The problem with the Chinese string instruments is that Cuba has imported the least expensive models, which tend to have more plywood and inferior materials, says Judy Gage, who manages her husband David’s stringed instrument repair shop in Manhattan and has also made numerous trips to Cuba with Horns to Havana. (Plywood is found in Russian basses too, but the quality is a bit higher.)
The shortage of good instruments has been a problem for decades in Cuba, a country famous for its music. “The instrument stores are all gone,” says Pupy Pedroso, a well-known Cuban pianist who spent years with the Cuban supergroup Los Van Van. “There’s a shop in Havana that sells instruments but they’re not professional.” Enterprising musicians from a young age have therefore learned to make and fix their instruments themselves. “When I was a boy in an amateur band, we liked to play the güiro (a ridged percussion instrument that gets scraped by a drumstick) but we didn’t have one,” Pedroso says. “So we would take a horn from a bull and scratch the slots into it.” Pedroso performed with a player who made a flute from a plastic bottle, and another who built one out of a metal tube.
“I want special things for this bass,” Aquino says as he tightens its strings. “I want it to be like a soulmate.” Aquino’s next challenge is getting his soulmate back home. He doesn’t own a car and it’s far too risky to carry on the overcrowded public buses. The almendrones—shared “peso cabs”—are also crowded and solo cabs are either too small or too expensive. His solution: a friend’s modified three-wheel motorcycle-driven cart. The bright yellow contraption—another invento Cubano—has an elongated open-air carriage large enough to accommodate the 6-foot-long bass that Aquino rests on his shoulder and straddles tenderly between his legs.
In September 2023, Horns to Havana founder Susan Sillins, sent me an update via email. “The pandemic meant there was no travel to Cuba for about 18 months,” she said. “After that the taller became a much smaller repair shop.” Sillins went on to say that, in spite of “everyday Cuban challenges,” the shop stayed in business for more than 10 years, repairing more than 7,000 instruments.
When the pandemic hit, the Cuban government couldn’t offer any assistance. “The Cubans could not make the repairs needed for broken pipes to supply running water,” she added, “and a number of technicians left (taking many tools) and moved to another country.”]
A few days later, I accompany Osvaldo Carvajal, a Cuban friend of mine who lives in San Francisco, his American wife, Melissa, and their two sons on a Sunday excursion in their rental car—another Chinese Geely. Osvaldo grew up in the province of Pinar del Rio, went to school there, and spent his early adult years working as a percussionist and singer. He made his first pair of bongo drums using leftover wood pieces, re-machined scrap metal, and a drumhead made from a sheet of X-ray film. (The sound produced by the X-ray sheet, he told me, is great: perfect for the higher-pitched drum of a bongo set.)
We drive through fields of cane and corn, weathered buildings, and farmers tilling the soil with ox-drawn furrows, slowing periodically to pass a horse-drawn cart. After two hours, we park at the end of a dirt road and walk to our destination: a small tobacco farm owned by Osvaldo’s uncle in the district of San Juan y Martinez. The district is home to the best tobacco in Cuba and, many would argue, the world over, with a Denomination of Origin designation as prized as any wine appellation in France.
The property is a mix of colors—rich red soil, intense green tobacco plants and corn stalks, and weathered browns and grays of rambling wood-and-tin structures in various states of repair. Chickens and goats of all ages wander the property, while a long, skinny black pig rests in its pen.
We’re greeted by Uncle Orestes, 78; his wife, Pucha; and three generations of offspring. They’re busy preparing a feast for us, so we walk to a wide, muddy river to swim and escape the 90-degree heat. On the way, we pass a young fisherman with a full sack of small, wriggling fish. Growing up, Osvaldo spent his summers here—helping to grow and harvest the farm’s thick tobacco leaves, and swimming in this river.
After our swim, we gather for a lunch of slow-cooked roast pig, fried banana chips, and congri—a Cuban form of black beans and rice. We sit with the whole family at a large outdoor table between the main family house and the casa de tabaco (tobacco drying shed). While the adults linger over the sumptuous spread, drinking strong Cuban coffee, Orestes’ and Pucha’s three great-grandchildren climb into a large metal bucket for an outdoor group bath. Two older girls fill the bucket with a hose from a water tank, then scrub the little ones.
Orestes—wiry, with pink weathered skin and a shock of grey-black hair—was born on this land, he says, in a house that’s still standing, and has lived here his entire life. He went to school only through fourth grade and started working at the age of 9, toiling on a neighboring farm for $1.50 a day to help support the family.
The years before the Cuban revolution, he says, were very hard. His family could sell their tobacco to different vendors but the pricing and payment were uncertain. In the late 1950s, soldiers of the Batista regime used to come to the farm and take whatever they wanted. When Fidel Castro’s guerilla movement overthrew the Batista regime, Orestes’ father and many of his neighbors were understandably supportive.
After the revolution, he says, life got easier. Farmers could sell their tobacco to just one source—the government. While that limited their choices, it also established a fixed price higher than they’d gotten before. They also won some independence. “Before they had to work for somebody else like a slave, really low pay,” Orestes says. “Now this is your piece of land and you work and get something to eat.”
Then came the 1990s. The Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba’s economy cratered, and gasoline became almost unavailable. “Within two months, everything disappeared,” says Osvaldo, who was still living in Cuba at the time. “We used to have markets with meat, chicken, fish, lamb. We had canned food, rice and beans, soap. In one or two months, there was nothing left. The infrastructure disappeared. The farmers had no place to buy stuff. Whatever food they grew they kept for themselves.”
The family survived because they could produce their own food—and because Orestes could build almost everything. While most of his seven siblings, along with Osvaldo’s father, eventually left the farm, Orestes stayed, and eventually took over. Over the years, he learned skills such as blacksmithing (useful for shoeing horses and reusing scrap steel). He and his children proceeded to build all the structures and furniture now on the compound.
After lunch, I get a tour of their handiwork. The pigpen is made of old rebar. Springs and steel frames from an old car have been melted and re-shaped into a plow. And there’s a giant wooden rake. Each of these implements was designed to be hitched to an ox. Orestes also made the oxen’s wooden yoke, a cart for hauling rice stalks after harvest, and a gargantuan basket, also made of re-bar, to hold tobacco leaves while barefoot family members stomp them flat.
In front of the casa de tabaco, a wood-and-aluminum barn, a horse carriage that Orestes built in the 1990s lies on its side. I peer into the casa, by the light of my iPhone, and see a line of thin wooden poles where tobacco leaves can be hung to dry–the barn’s windows and doors are opened or closed in order to adjust temperature and humidity. The drying process typically takes about 70 days, Orestes says, for the leaves to change from moist and green to the golden hue prized for fine cigars.
But this year, Orestes says, neither the price of tobacco nor the yield is especially good. They’ll get paid about $80 per 100 pounds of dried tobacco leaves. With production of about 8,000 pounds this year, that will give them approximately $6,400 to support an extended family of roughly a dozen people.
The methods on Orestes’ farm, and those of most of his neighbors, are primitive by the standards of the huge tobacco farms in, say, Virginia or North Carolina. No fertilizers are used—due partly to the fact that the U.S. embargo and high prices keep them largely off the Cuban market. The work of preparing, tilling, and harvesting is all done by hand. Yet Cuban tobacco still excels, especially the tobacco grown in two world-renowned districts located just 7 miles apart: San Juan y Martinez, where Orestes’ farm is located, and San Luis.
What distinguishes this region is essentially its terroir. According to an article in the Spring 2015 edition of Cigar Journal (link follows below), these two districts have a unique microclimate and, most importantly, unique soil conditions.
Reporting on several scientific studies, the journal found that the earth in these two regions is unusually high in iron (thus its dark red color), which creates a low pH value. This gives Cuba’s special breed of tobacco—tabaco negro (or black tobacco)—a long aftertaste and “plenty of aroma.” On top of that, the soil’s high ratio of calcium to magnesium makes the tobacco sweet. The mildest leaves come from the San Juan region in particular, where the soil is low in nitrogen. And low nitrogen means lower levels of nicotine.
By all indications, much of what makes all these elements come together in a great Cuban cigar is the slow attention to detail that is possible on small-scale farms like Orestes’.
When the embargo is finally lifted and trade with the U.S. begins, Richard Feinberg believes that farmers like Orestes Carvajal will have a bright future. “When the U.S. market opens and we all get to enjoy Cuban puros, there’s no doubt there will be a boom,” he says. Orestes and his family “will be in Fat City. He’ll be driving around in a Mercedes Benz.”
The next day, Osvaldo and I head to his hometown, La Palma, a 20-minute drive from Viñales through the countryside that has helped make the region a popular tourist destination. Rolling limestone hills, or mogotes, alternate with lush valleys where fields of corn spring from the red soil. Great, billowing clouds cast wide shadows that turn the mogotes from green to black.
On our way into town, we pick up a hitchhiker, a former teacher who says he quit because the salary, about $25 a month, was too little to live on. Osvaldo tells me that in his last years in Cuba, he made that much in one night working as a musician. After we arrive in town and start walking the streets, it seems that almost everyone is an old friend. We can’t walk a block without encountering someone who gives him an abrazo and wants to talk about old times.
Our first stop is at the home of Gregorio Alfaro, who, like almost every man I meet in La Palma, is better known by his nickname—Nono, in this case. His wife, Olivia, seats us in the kitchen and serves us espresso, an almost universal experience when visiting Cuban homes. Behind us, a cement ramp leads up to Nono’s open carpentry workshop, where Nono is hunched over an electric saw, cutting a long piece of wood into a curved shape for the base of a rocking chair.
After a few minutes, Nono takes a break and joins us at the kitchen table. He rests his left arm on the table, revealing a hand that is missing a thumb and two fingers, the result of two separate accidents. Now 78, he spent his early years working as a farmer and switched to construction 30 years ago, building and maintaining the neighborhood clinics and homes used by doctors and nurses. After retiring 18 years ago, he got a contract to make tables and chairs for a government-owned company, and he uses the leftover wood scraps to make furniture that he sells inexpensively to friends and neighbors.
There’s little that Nono can’t build. He spent three years building his family’s house, working on weekends and at the end of each workday. He built a circular table saw using the rebuilt engine of a water pump, its cutting surface fashioned from steel plates scrounged from a sugar-cane factory. He even made his own cement building blocks, pouring the mixture into homemade scrap-iron molds. Now he’s passing his wisdom onto his granddaughter’s boyfriend, who he’s training as an apprentice.
Nono’s approach to training is as simple as it comes. He’ll demonstrate how he does things, maybe offer a few words of explanation, and then let you figure things out for yourself. “I became a construction worker and carpenter by watching,” he says. “I didn’t have a teacher but I watched and learned. When you see something you want to make, you keep trying. The first one might be so-so. The second will be better.”
Nono’s daughter, Ana Luisa Alfaro Diaz, manages a small clothing factory and salesroom on the second story of a commercial building on La Palma’s main street. And she may have inherited her father’s no-nonsense creativity. Beginning in the 1990s, during the years of the “special period,” new clothing became too expensive for most people to buy. So when the government began importing recycled clothing from Panama and other countries, Ana’s shop took on a new specialty: creating new designs that could be made from old clothes.
“We didn’t go to school for this,” Ana tells me, “but we learned from experience. We are all creative; we are all designers. So we share ideas. Does this work? Does that work? We figure it out together and that’s how we create.” The shop’s 18 women make clothing of all kinds but their focus is clothes for children and babies, along with uniforms for doctors and nurses.
From Ana’s shop, I walk a few blocks and stop at the home of Nereyda Esquivel Blanco. Out front, her brother waits for customers at his shoeshine stand. Nereyda, 65, sits just inside, crocheting a flower broche while her granddaughter watches. She’s been sewing and making things since she was 12, she says, using recycled materials and old clothes to create clothing, toys, and dolls, and help support her daughter and four grandchildren.
“It makes me happy making something new from something that was thrown away,” she says.
Elizardo Esquivel, known as Licho, remembers the exact day—December 7, 1956—when he got a job at a shoe factory in La Palma and learned the craft he’s been engaged in for 60 years. It was a small factory, he says, and each employee had to learn many jobs. He was 13 years old when he was hired.
“I learned how to do everything with shoes, starting from design,” he tells us when we arrive at his home for a visit. Now 74, he lives with his wife, Isora, and a niece and nephew in a complex of two-story apartments. Residents built this facility themselves with government financing and materials, and now own their units. The well-maintained complex puts most American public housing to shame, with grassy courtyards between buildings and residents relaxing in the shade of trees. We sit together in the living room as he works with a large needle, repairing the toe of a black and white Nike athletic shoe.
During his youth, Osvaldo was best friends with the Esquivel’s son, Alexis, and a regular visitor in their home. Licho had dropped out of school after 6th grade, and Osvaldo remembers when he went back to night school as an adult, ultimately getting a job at a government-owned food services company. In the evenings, he used leftover leather scraps to make custom shoes at home. Because he was restricted to scraps, he learned to stitch together small pieces of leather and incorporate the stitching into the shoe designs. He could make pretty much any kind of shoe, Licho tells me—boots and low-cuts, sandals and women’s shoes. “He made my shoes too,” Osvaldo says.
Two years ago, Licho got an unwelcome notice: the government managers of the apartment complex told him he’d have to demolish his courtyard workshop; outside structures were no longer permitted. Without the workshop, he has to work from his living room—not an ideal space for shoe construction. Suitable glue had also become scarce, so he’s had to rely on repair work that involves sewing.
How did he feel about losing his workshop? “No pasa nada,” he says, stoically. “It was sad but what can you do?”
As we talk, the doorbell rings and two girls poke their heads in. Isoro greets them and goes to the freezer, pulling out two tamarind popsicles, which had been formed in the bottoms of beer cans. The girls give Isoro some coins and she hands them their popsicles. Commerce finds a way.
When the girls leave, Licho pulls out a hand-sized tool that’s like a Cuban Rube Goldberg device. A large, hooked needle taken from a sewing machine has been mounted to the adjusting screw from a bicycle brake, which, in turn, is attached to the rubber grip of a bicycle handlebar. It’s used to reach deep into a shoe and to make stitches with heavy thread. “This,” he says, “is a good invento Cubano.”
To Licho, inventos are an everyday part of life. “The economy is so bad here,” he says, “you have to be creative to survive.”
There’s one more inventore Osvaldo wants me to meet: Juan Francisco Valdez Linarez, or Bebo, the 80-year-old father of an old schoolmate. We pull up to a ramshackle cement-block house next to a trickling, dirty stream. After knocking on the door to no avail we are about to leave when a wiry man with jet-black skin and a blue “Florida” baseball cap approaches. Osvaldo and Bebo embrace and we sit down together in a small open area behind an outdoor kitchen.
Bebo, Osvaldo tells me, is like a mad scientist who can make or fix almost anything. When I ask him how he learned his trade, he walks into his rickety workshop and returns with a 1950s hardcover Ingersoll Rand catalog that contains detailed descriptions of the workings of compressors, pneumatic tools, pumps, and much more. (Although this edition is in English, which he cannot read, he says he also has a Spanish version.)
Bebo has had the book since 1958, when he attended a mechanic’s school while working at a large estate, Finca Sagua, owned by two Americans. His father worked there too, the first black in the area to work as an administrator at a finca, he says. He learned about motors, electricity, and various kinds of equipment until his studies were interrupted by the tumult of the revolution. At one point, the finca was implicated as a center of CIA activity. Bebo says that he and his father were later arrested for alleged involvement in insurrectionist plots and imprisoned for 58 days. Eventually, Bebo says, charges were dropped. Apparently, as with Fidel, history absolved him.
Bebo spent the next five decades as a jack-of-all-trades, doing welding, plumbing, electrical work, and construction. Now retired, he receives a monthly pension of 242 Cuban pesos—about $10. To supplement that, he earns another 200 to 300 pesos a month doing odd jobs. While a monthly income of about $25 sounds like a pittance, it puts him precisely at the country’s median income level—enough to live on by Cuban standards, but barely. An old refrigerator cost him 65 pesos and he pays 20 to 30 pesos a month for electricity, five pesos for a bottle of water, and five more for a bottle of bad rum. “And after all that,” he says, “what’s left? We have to limit our lives and grab like spiders, at whatever we can.”
When I ask Bebo about inventos, an impish smile spreads across his gaunt face. He shows us into his workroom, a chaos of tools, scrap parts, broken fans, and electrical supplies spilling off shelves and dangling from walls. The center of the room holds a remarkable contraption—a motorcycle he built from a bicycle by adding a motor, a gas tank, a clutch, and a series of belts that drive the rear wheel. He built it 15 or 20 years ago, he says, and in those days it could really fly. Today, he says, it’s not running because it needs a magneto from a Russian vehicle that he’s been hunting for months.
At one point, when a broken motor had him stumped, he suddenly remembered a little bag somewhere in his workshop full of capacitors and other broken parts. “I had the idea to open one (capacitor) up and see what’s happening inside,” he says. The experience taught him how to fix them. To demonstrate one such achievement, he reaches down to a dusty motor, takes a wire coming from one capacitor, and touches it to another wire. The wires spark once, twice, his hands lit by the flash. And the machine, an electric saw, cranks to life, its round blade spinning furiously.
Bebo stands up in triumph. This is nothing, he says, for a “maestro mecánico” like him.
In the weeks since I left Cuba, I’ve been pondering the obvious question: As economic change comes to Cuba, what will happen to the people I met? I’m thinking not only of Bebo and Nono but also the younger generation, the children and apprentices to these maestros.
The day before I left, I visited the home of Leisi Rodriguez, a 32-year-old seamstress and clothing designer who lives with her mother and grandmother near the Havana airport—three generations of seamstresses under one roof. After being taught how to sew by her two elders, Leisi created a tiny business: she makes new clothes from recycled materials. What could she do if she had access to a little bit of capital—to buy new materials and sewing machines, to hire some workers? More importantly, what might she achieve if she had partners who could help market her clothes in other countries?
In Richard Feinberg’s view, that day is just around the corner—at least for those who are prepared for the next revolution coming their way. Right now, he says, a brief protected period exists for small entrepreneurs to get established before the locomotive of global trade arrives, and potentially leaves them behind as it slowly picks up speed. “Now they have opportunity to grow their businesses, to get ready to compete in a more open global marketplace,” Feinberg says. “Some will make it on their own, and some will partner with foreign investors, especially Cuban Americans.” In other words, Cuba’s inventos spirit is likely to survive—even as it shifts in a very new direction.