Letter Re: A Nation of Improvisers–More About Everyday Life in Communist Cuba

First our prayers are with your family in these dire times.

The first thing about surviving in Cuba was that we did not see it as “surviving”, it was more like living, we did not know anything else, as the media in Cuba is tightly controlled.

I remember as a child we did not have glue so we made glue out of Styrofoam and gasoline, just mix them up in a glass container that you could close to preserve and that’s it (if you go a little crazy on the gas it would be too liquid and take forever to dry). Canning was done basically with pressure cookers because there was nothing else, so all the knowledge of our grandparents was very handy and since you can’t buy a new house we all live together, so it was very common to live in the same house with your parents and grandparents and sometimes your uncles and your cousins. You learn not
to throw away anything useful, screws, bolts, nuts, washers, you never know when you will need them and there is no hardware store available. Food scraps went either to the pigs or chickens or if you did not have any, you give to someone that has, that becomes a bartering tool you can say you will take care of the food and get some part in the profits when they are killed.

I know that a lot of people are amazed at how we kept old cars running, but trust me, it wasn’t that big of a deal, a little bit of ingenuity goes a long way. I’ll go later into more detail.

We were born with the system, so there was no getting ready like we are doing now, and believe me, no matter how ready you can get, if the S*** really hits the fan and it’s TEOTWAWKI, you will run out of things, and even if it doesn’t and we are stuck in the middle, then you need people because there is no way you can learn everything.

Your best bartering tool is your knowledge, if you have a trade, mechanic, electrician, construction, carpenter,… that is a life saver, the people that had a harder time were teachers, musicians, economists, etc.

They could not trade their work for nothing. For instance if you are good working with metals you will find someone to get the metals and that person will join with you and you can make parts for cars, if you are a welder you can also join in, remember that old cars were very simple, no hydraulic steering, no power nothing. It was basic carburetor, spark plugs, distribution and engine. An alternator is not that hard to fix, it basically a motor, the parts that wear down can be made again, maybe not the same quality as the originals but they will do. You can also adapt an alternator from another car (we had Russian cars coming in, including some WWII jeep-style Russian vehicles), they are mostly 12 VDC (some trucks are 24 VDC).

A good mechanic will make an adapter so you can use the transmission from a Russian built jeep and make it work with an old American car.

My trade was electronics (we use to call electronics to anything below that 24 volt and electrical anything above) so I will get in when they needed the electrical system of the car fixed, again it is very simple; remember no computers or anything like that in those cars. Here is a link of how a car alternator and a bicycle dynamo were used in the mountains to produce electricity, no means to store it so it was to use immediately, but when there is no power even a radio is an amazing thing. (See this YouTube segment: La Cuchufleta – Alternative Power Generating in Cuba.)

I also fixed radios and television, I used to buy old radios and television and use the parts to fix the other ones.

Later on when computer UPS [devices] became available, by available a mean people started to steal them from the government and sell them in the black market, then we can hook up a battery and get electricity when the power went off, which was very common. No deep cycle batteries, just whatever battery you could get.

Other people were real artisans; they would make shoes with leather and old tires, and let me tell you, they were super nice and expensive.

The hardest thing of all was to get food, because you need food to survive, you can live barefoot but not on an empty stomach, at least not for a long time.

When you were able to buy rice (the amount they give in rations, every family had a ration book, was minimal, so again black market) you would buy a good amount as much as you could afford because maybe next month the guy was in jail or it was impossible to get.

The rice you got was not stored properly so you always had to first put it on a table and go slowly through all the rice to search for small stones and foreign objects, then you put the rice in water and keep moving the rice with your hand and look for bugs, worms, they float and would come to the surface. I still remember as a child that grandma would call the children to “escoger el arroz” (that is what the cleaning process was called).

Milk was always boiled first, that way you could use the top which has more fat to make butter (you saved it till you had enough). If for some reason milk was spoiled and not drinkable you would make a dessert with it, I have to get you the recipe if you are interested.

After you ate the inside of oranges and grapefruits, you would use the rind and cook it in water with sugar and it was an excellent dessert.

To have some variety, you will get spaghetti, crush them and leave them in water, next day it was kind of a soft mix in the bottom, get rid of the excess water, add sugar and an egg and you could make pancakes.

Alcohol is consumed in Cuba in enormous quantities, I have no statistics, but it was relatively easy to make with a small homemade distillery (again quality is not a great concern), and I guess it’s a good way to forget the problems, although it brings another problems.

People would fight for the simplest of reasons, and there is no 911, and you better not be the weakest link because your family is in for a rough time because no one will respect you. Criminals would typically give you respect if they know you and you respect them and they knew it was not going to be easy to take on you or your family. If not you would be the target of thieves all the time.

Those are my experiences living in a country in permanent crisis, you would have times when power was on for whole days, and times when power was on for only 8 hours a day, times when it was relatively easy to get meat, or bread and times when it was almost impossible. There is no planning, everyday will bring a new challenge and you have to adapt, and only your knowledge, wits and Faith are going to help you through.

Unless we go down into total collapse – War, in which case all bets are off and nothing will ever prepare us for that because it would be the law of the jungle, whoever is stronger will survive and then you better have a strong group of family/friends or you will have to join a group, because alone you are pretty much gone.

Read the accounts of Somalia and Serbia so you have an idea. I know more of Somalia because my father served for two years (in the 1970s) in the wars between Ethiopia and Somalia, Cuba sent troops there to fight on the Ethiopian side.

I’d also like to respond to a misinformed comment in the article “Developing Our Family’s Survival Strategy, by FBP”. Cubans cannot grow 70% of their own food as a country, let alone in the cities. Cubans eat a lot of rice, beans and potatoes, there is no place in a city to grow enough of that to supply a family, much less a whole city.

The population density in Havana City, Cuba is 7,908.5/sq mi,

By comparison:
Detroit, Michigan – 6378.1/sq mi
Los Angeles, California – 7876.8/sq mi

So can those cities provide more than 70% of their own food? – ILR