After a Glimpse at Free Trade, Cuba Spirals Downward
Written by ROB WATERS
This sidebar is a supplement to Cuba’s Madres (y Padres) of Invention
When I traveled in Cuba in the summer and fall of 2016 and met the ingenious people I describe in this article, prospects for renewed engagement between the U.S. and Cuba were at an all-time high. My first trip that year came just a few months after Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to visit the island since Calvin Coolidge nearly 90 years before. In Havana, while visiting Estadio Latinoamerica for a game between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Cuban national beisbol team, Obama sat next to then-Cuban President Raul Castro, and was cheered by the Cuban fans.
Back then, “we were at peak hope,” says Theodore Henken, an associate professor of sociology at Baruch College in New York who studies Cuba and has traveled there extensively. “Americans were paying attention to Cuba, there was excitement about a new relationship, a new policy. Lots of people went to Cuba for the first time. People were sniffing around for business opportunities.”
At the time, Cubans had endured decades of austerity and political repression, but they had also created an unusual culture of inventive adaptation. They used that resourcefulness to develop what the Cubans call inventos—the hacks and Rube Goldberg creations I write about in this story. As one inventore put it to me, “The economy is so bad here, you have to be creative to survive.”
At the time, many Cubans felt that creativity would serve them well as the country became more engaged with the rest of the world, especially with its giant neighbor, the U.S. But sadly, “peak hope” had a short shelf life. Before long, Henken says, “Almost all of that hope died on the vine.”
To be fair, hope’s prospects started dimming even before Donald Trump was elected president. In the months following Obama’s visit, the Castro government “went into a protective crouch,” Henken says, worried that the engagement he offered—especially the potential opening of markets—might undermine its grip on power. “They sent signals that Obama had rattled them, and they were not interested—in the short term, at least—in allowing greater access and greater freedom, and in taking advantage of his open hand.”
Then came the perfect storm: Trump slammed the door, reimposing restrictions on commerce and travel by Americans. Deals in the making collapsed. Three years later, the pandemic struck, the world went into lockdown, and things in Cuba hit rock bottom.
And even as travel to other parts of the Caribbean resumed, Cuba was left out: January 2022 saw just 84,000 foreign travelers come to Cuba, an 80 percent drop from the same month in 2020. As the economy cratered, food and medicine, already in short supply, became even more scarce. Power outages more common. By July 2021, two months after Miguel Díaz-Canel became president, the discontent gave way to the largest anti-government protests since Cuba’s historic 1959 revolution.
At that point, Cuba’s spirit of invention went into demonstrations, blogs, and popular music. “Díaz-Canel singao”—meaning, essentially, the president is a fucker —quickly went from a rap song to a slogan and meme. And a group of exiled Cuban rappers and musicians turned one of Fidel Castro’s most famous exhortations, urging loyalty to the homeland, on its head in a song that became the demonstrators’ anthem. “Ya no gritemos ‘Patria o Muerte’ sino “Patria y Vida” (Let us no longer shout “Homeland or Death” but “Homeland and Life.”)
Hungry, disillusioned, and feeling powerless to make change, record numbers of Cubans began fleeing the island again, in the greatest wave of people since 125,000 fled in the Mariel boatlift of 1980. Once again, most aimed for the US. In 2022, almost 224,000 Cubans attempted to enter the U.S; in 2023, according to U.S. government statistics, the number so far is close to 185,000.
As work opportunities continued to shrink, Cuban inventores took their tinkering skills to the internet. Through Facebook groups such as balseros Cubanos and other social media platforms, they started selling scavenged motors, propellers, and other parts to be used by would-be balseros on improvised boats.
This new generation of entrepreneurs was inspired, no doubt, by the story of Luis Grass who, back in the early 2000s, turned a 1950s vintage Chevy truck into a boat by floating it on pontoons and using the motor to drive a propeller. He almost made it to the U.S., but was turned back by the U.S Coast Guard, which sank his truck-boat. He built another and was again caught by the Coast Guard. This time, he was taken to the U.S. Naval base at Guantanamo, Cuba, and then given asylum by Costa Rica. He did eventually succeed, by traveling through Mexico to the U.S. border, where he was granted U.S. asylum.
Today, this is the route of choice for tens of thousands of Cubans seeking to come to the US. “The youngest people, the last generation, they’re not connected to the revolution and they want to eat better, have better clothes, have a normal life,” said my Cuban friend Osvaldo Carvajal, who seven years ago introduced me to some of his amigos inventores for this story. “They find a way to buy a ticket to Nicaragua and then cross the selva de Darien”—the dangerous Darien Gap in Panamá that tens of thousands of migrants from Venezuela, Haiti, and other countries also traverse in an effort to get to the U.S. border.
Those fleeing Cuba are “everyday people, but it’s also a lot of the people who were active as artists, activists, human rights defenders, and independent journalists,” said Henken. “And now some of the biggest inventos that Cubans have come up with, are inventos to get to the United States from Cuba.”
Some of their innovative methods call on a new set of high-tech skills, sharing information by cell phones and the cloud. Others are just good old-fashioned ingenuity, given new urgency, and perhaps new expertise, in light of Cuba’s growing deprivations. “These inventos have to do with how to get out, staying alive in the jungle, dealing with people who are trying to extort money,” Henken told me. “They did it all through inventos.”