What Cubans Won’t Say

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

The mainstream media has you hoodwinked. The Beeb, Miami Herald, WSJ, CNN – whatever news profiteer you prefer, they’d have you believe Cubans are cowed, afraid to criticize the powers that be and not willing (or able) to speak truth to that power.

Those who’ve been here know that’s a whole bunch of hooey, another of those myths perpetuated to fit an antiquated paradigm and forward a political and commercial agenda. While media control and social coercion once ruled in Cuba and self-censorship was synonymous with self-preservation, that was then.

These days, Cubans and Habaneros (my specialty) especially, criticize a blue streak and are learning slowly, surely, to speak truth to power through neighborhood and national debates, blogs, publications like Temas and La Calle del Medio, as well as TV shows like Libre Acceso. Sitting here in Havana, trust me when I tell you: the evolution of the revolution is happening folks, whether They like it or not. And people are talking about it.

But there’s one thing Cubans won’t say still. From Abbottabad to Boyeros, Port-au-Prince to Perico, I’ve never heard a Cuban say “can’t.” Simply put, there’s no can’t in Cuba. What more, it’s what has kept the dream alive all these years (see note 1).

In a recent PBS special on Cuban healthcare, an executive at Havana’s Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center credited the US blockade for Cuba’s ingenuity saying, “it created the challenge for us to try and solve our own problems.” And this is undeniably true in the biotech sector, an industry where patents and inputs controlled by the USA forces Cubans to forge their own solutions – so successfully that today Cuban vaccines, cancer therapies, and generic drugs are among the country’s largest export earners today (see note 2).

In my mind though, the Cuban “can-do” attitude isn’t just due to the blockade; it’s in their blood. Consider José Martí, who organized, fundraised and fought for Cuban independence, only to be shot dead two days into the fracas. Or Fidel Castro’s failed attack on the Moncada Barracks which landed the survivors in jail, not to mention the even more disastrous (and fatal) fight after the Granma landed when only a dozen of 82 survived. As I said, “can’t” isn’t in the Cuban vernacular.

Bay of Pigs?
Yes we can!

Missile Crisis?
Yes we can!

Special Period?
Yes we can (eventually)!

Cubans can invent (and overcome, it seems) anything. Here we call this the ability to ‘resolver.’ These folks can resolve anything and even my mom has taken to saying: ‘It’s Cuba. It can be resolved’ every time I regale her with a new problem or gripe. She doesn’t realize both my husband and I are shitty resolvers.

Not so the guajiro who brought electricity to the clutch of one-room wooden houses in his remote mountain village of Guantánamo by inventing La Cuchufleta. Made from scrap metal and a bicycle wheel, this ingenious contraption sits in a bend in the river where the water flows fast and produces enough juice to power the bare bulbs and sole TV in that previously dark and silent burg.

Then there are the ‘Yank tanks,’ those Detroit dowagers nearly as old as Fidel that are kept together and running with duct tape, wires, and anything else that helps ‘resolver‘ – including a Flintstones vitamin bottle for brake fluid.

McGyver’s got nothing on the Cubans.

One of my favorite Cuban inventions is the rikimbili (see note 3), a motorized bicycle which has grown increasingly rare in Havana unfortunately. They come in different shapes and levels of sophistication, but when you see a bike putt-putt-putting along Calle 100 with a soda bottle strapped to the frame, piss yellow ‘brillante‘ sloshing around inside, you’ve sighted a rikimbili.

Cuban medical missions serving in scores of countries from East Timor to Mali, Bolivia to Botswana couldn’t survive without this inventive ingenuity. I’ve seen it firsthand. In Pakistan, where Cubans were freezing their cojones off during six months of disaster relief, I watched as family doctors constructed a tube of interlocking water bottles from their tent to a trench out back so they could pee without going out into the frigid Kashmir night. My bunkmates, las doctoras, weren’t so fortunate.

In post-quake Haiti, I held a girl’s hand (her only body part not in a cast) as a Cuban orthopedic surgeon adjusted her “traction” – a rope and cinder block invention rigged up at the foot of her bed in the overflowing, fly-infested ward.

Not everything Cubans invent is good however. Recently, a friend was buying veggies at the agro when he spotted a stand piled high with puré. Sold in re-purposed 1.5 liter bottles, this tomato paste is a staple of the Cuban kitchen and an efficient way to dispatch with past-their-prime tomatoes besides. As my amigo spoke to the vendor, he noticed huge sacks of carrots and squash behind the stand. In a wordless exchange (something else Cubans have elevated to an art form) he raised an eyebrow at the sacks and she responded, wordlessly, by pointing her pursed lips in the direction of the bottles. My friend couldn’t figure how the orange root vegetables could be transformed into the bright red paste until he consulted the radio bemba (grapevine): the color was obtained by adding a dash of pulverized brick. Apocryphal? Perhaps. This is Cuba after all.

Good or not so, keep an eye open in Cuba and you’ll discover inventions everywhere. Even after all these years, I’m still learning the extent of ingenuity powering this country. Just last week I was stopped dead in my tracks with a new way to resolver: the 3-legged chair. No stool this, we’re talking a 3-legged chair propped just so.

‘What will they think of next?’ I wondered.

I came across my answer a couple of blocks later: a 2-legged chair, propped against a tree, upon which was seated a none-too-slim parking attendant.

In Cuba, ¡sí, se puede!


1. The other factor that has kept it alive is the solidarity Cubans extend to each other. Consider this from a blog post listing What Cuban Friends Are Like: “A friend sends you a card and flowers when you’re in the hospital. A Cuban friend stays at the hospital, sitting in a rocking chair at your bedside.”

2. The blockade of Cuba, which is known as a “genocidal policy” here, prevents the island from obtaining badly-needed pharmaceutical products like Sevoflurane (Abbott Laboratories), a general anesthesia for children. Things like this – preventing kids from having anesthetic for imperceptible political gain – gets my Irish way up. It also prevents normal readers like you from traveling to Cuba.

3. There’s a special prize for any reader who can enlighten me as to the origin of this word.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad

39 responses to “What Cubans Won’t Say

  1. Excellent read. It has reminded me of a Cuban film I saw here in The NL not long ago, about a group of people travelling on a bus that breaks down, and how they all interact to try to fix it or get to their destination. I wish I could remember the name of the film!

  2. Candy Velichka

    Es verdad. Having lived in a small eastern province village off and on for 15 years, even the totally impossible is met with “sí, se puede”. This spirit comes from over 55 years of swimming against the current and surviving.

    • Absolutely Candy. Im always awed by Cubans’ ability to face adversity and with a smile and a laugh. An inspiration. Thanks for reading and writing in.

  3. Stacy

    Love your writing. Love debatng free speech.
    It’s like this blog is just begging for me to reply!
    While it is way too easy (and patently false) to charactize an entire nation as fearful mutes, I struggle with the idea of the new Cuba being a harbor for free speech — especially when it comes to the press. Can free speech truly exist in country which only recently released the last journalist from the 2003 Black Spring crackdown? What about the journalists who were imprisoned for “disrespect for authority” and could only secure their release by promising to go into exile?
    I love that your blog exists to give people a glimpse into Cuban life and perspectives. I only wish that all journalists in Cuba could speak — and live there — as freely.

    • Hey Stacy. Thanks for writing in and opening up the debate! I never intended to imply that Cuba is a “harbor for free speech.” This is obviously a process that will continue to unfold in fits and starts for a long time to come. In the Cuban context, which has not been friendly to free speech, investigative journalism and public criticism in the past, learning these concepts is not like flipping a light switch; it will take time. But when you have Raul Castro saying at the 6th Communist Party Congress that the Cuban media has to ditch the triumphalist and formal language, that bureaucrats are not supplying timely and complete information to journalists, that journalists are eyed with suspicion unrightfully and that “We find boring, improvised and superficial materials in our media” – this is progress! It’s slow, but Im seeing it up close, daily. It’s happening.

      First, let’s give thanks that those journalists were released. The assertion that they were forced into exile is not true: three have opted to remain in Cuba. Second, let’s remember that many (most? all?) of these journalists were being financed by an enemy state: the USA. Last, the blogs of Yoani (another financed by parties hoping for regime change) and other dissident bloggers have been unblocked and I think if you search on Cuban bloggers, you’ll find tons of people speaking “freely.”

      One place to start is Havana Times a site collecting and translating bloggers from inside Cuba.

      I think it’s instructive to look at the US media after the 9-11 attacks and the role of the state in influencing coverage – explicit or implicit – in times of attack (and yes, the 50+ year blockade is an attack). The 4th Estate crumpled just like the towers under Bush/Cheney/Rice. Thankfully the US media seems to have regained some of its cojones since, but the point is: doesn’t all media censor in some way or another due to external or political factors? Fox is an illustrative example.

      Keep on keepin’ on!

      • sam

        Havana Times a great example of this, and the entire site is accessible within Cuba. Unfortunately some of their contributors (including the founder) lost their jobs when the site first went public. But since then I haven’t heard of anyone having issues related to the site. Its a great resource for a wide diversity of opinions on Cuba (and often just daily vignettes of people’s everyday lives). And a good resource for people interested in criticism of government polices from the “left” in Cuba…because so often we only hear about the (very loud) critiques from the right wing.

        I never made it to any of the Temas “Ultimo Jueves” debates…but I sure they would blow people’s minds who think that there is no open debate in Cuba.

  4. viajera

    Another fascinating instalment! I am going to have to agree to disagree with you about the extent of free speech / free journalism in Cuba – heard what just happened to Ted Henken? – but I’m right with you about the direction of travel and that there is more willingness to speak out than there used to be.

    But my more important contribution here is about food. Fake tomato puree made of actual vegetables is really nothing to be surprised at – I know a guy who survived the Special Period by selling imitation puree made of a very small proportion of real tomato, watered down heavily, then re-thickened with soaked ‘fibre’ (“whatever kind I could get – might be cotton wool, might be mop thread”) and dyed back to a deep rich red with mercurochrome (you know, that stuff to disinfect wounds.) yummy! I think even pulverized brick might have been more appetising…

    PS no idea about the derivation of ‘riquimbili’, but I heard that (like so many other Cuban inventos) they could be classed as hazardous to life and limb and are so – theoretically – banned ; enforcement varies but as they’re supposedly illegal anyway, their owners are always vulnerable to confiscation. Periodic crackdowns = fewer riquimbilies, especially on main traffic avenues.

    • Yes! Food, the real stuff of life! That is simply incredible unbelievable nasty about the fiber/mercurichrome puree. I never liked puree myself and had to wean my husband off it.

      Ted Henken – as I understood it, he came in on a tourist visa and carried out journalistic activities. That’s against the law of this land, he knew it, he risked it. Choices, responsibilities and consequences.

      I didn’t know rikimbilis were illegal. I’ll have to re-read my Ley 60.

      • quepasa

        I agree with you conner. Ted Henken was asking for it, ….and my opinion is that he acted arrogant and respect-less. Actually strange than he could go on for such a long time, he was overdue.

      • Hola!

        I don’t follow Henken’s blog because his is an old tune/strategy and his posts don’t enrich the conversation for me. His behavior on his last trip solidified it – arrogant and falta respeto totalmente. Anyone who is interested, however, can check out his blog at http://www.elyuma.blogspot.com

        Thanks for reading and writing in.

  5. Ole

    Hey, Conner-

    Indeed los Cubanos are masters of el invento- none quite like them in the world.

    I have to take you to task, though, about the heart rending story of children being denied anesthesia by the heartless Bogeyman, the USA. This is quite simply not true- there is no embargo on food or medical products. Cuba may buy whatever they can afford.
    I imagine that this is an apocryphal story that has been making the rounds in Cuba for far too long now. I am surprised that you bought into it, as educated as you are. There is enough bad about US policy towards Cuba to go around without you publishing an “invento” of your own


    • Hey Ole. Remember: I work as a health journalist here and am quite clear on how this works. the bloqueo does indeed affect food and medicine. While you’re correct that Cuba may buy medicine from the US, the financial terms, combined with the bureaucratic burden put on pharm companies in the US to actually engage in commerce with Cuba, makes it essentially impossible to purchase these products.

      This is a perfect example of the difference between an embargo and a blockade.

  6. Ro

    On Henken, in an article posted on several websites, Mari Hayman quoted Henken: “A long time ago, I realized that if you really want to achieve something in Cuba, it is better to ask for forgiveness afterward than permission beforehand.”
    I find that extremely arrogant coming from a non-Cuban.
    So much for rule of law, eh? Especially when it’s not your own country, eh?
    So is Ted Henken fighting to change Cuban law? Quite a mission, that.
    Apparently, those poor little Cubans can’t defend themselves, so they
    need “el yuma” to do it for them? What is he, super-yuma?
    Sorry for the sarcasm, but something stinks in yuma-land…
    and it smells like white man’s burden.

  7. Laraine in Tampa

    “La necesidad enseña más que la universidad”, as the refrán goes. I’ve long heard “Los Cubanos son Los Judíos del Caribe”, said in the most respectful and awe-inspiring way. Very wonderfully creative, funny, musical and smart people you live among!

    • you said it Laraine! And I feel like Ive received much much more than a university degree living here all this time (and without spending $100,000!)

      • Sarah

        How do you live there and support yourself? I want to know!
        I am REALLY enjoying this blog. It is fascinating and food for thought for sure!
        Thanks for sharing your experience with us!

      • Hola Sarah, glad you like it – it’s a real labor of love. I’m a writer, so I support myself writing. It’s not a great living, but inkeep my head above water by keeping my overhead low. I’m a credentialed journalist also which covers a lot of the bureaucratic bases. Cheers!

  8. Candysita

    “Resolver”: No gas cap for 52 Mercury? No problem. Put an old gas tank from another car in the trunk. Fill it with gasoline. Siphon gas out of auxillary tank and pray you don’t get rear ended. Put siphoned gas in 10 gallon metal drum in front passenger side of car. Stuff hole on top of drum with rags and a funnel. Run same tube used to siphon gas through the small side window (no smoking in car) into the carburator. Voila! Resolver!!

  9. Conner
    Could not agree with you more on the El Yuma guy Ted, he has been playing this game for a long time.Would have been nice if they had caught him with Yoni and I understand he had interviewed many people while their.

    Hope to see something about the new/revised Guidelines soon and the Chinese path to so called “market socialism”=capitalism.
    Rojo Rojito


    • Hey Cort. Yeah, Im sure he’s putting together some book (I think Yoani’s just came out but can’t be bothered) on Cuban bloggers. Everyone lining up to make a nickel on the backs of the cubans! It’s really kinda spooky and has much to do with the new “lineamientos” you mention. I hadn’t really thought about writing anything about them directly but if I eat one more shitty, overpriced pan con tortilla (egg sandwich), served by a surly and slow companero with a new business he doesn’t really know how to run, Im gonna start.

      From all my reading, Cubans are adopting a vietnamese, not chinese, model. Thoughts?

      • sam

        I think it remains to be seen how large of a role the state will play in the economy. I guess, if they stick to allowing small businesses and cooperatives…while the state still controls the majority of the large scale production…that wouldn’t be as much of a shock to the system in Cuba. And it would be more similar to the Vietnamese model, your right. But, it’s hard to reconcile this move as still being in line with marxist economic theories. I have some criticisms of this…but being more of an anarchist that’s typical of me 😉

  10. Conner
    I think they are calling it Vietnamese because of Che’s and Fidel’s criticism of China from long ago but if one looks at the close business ties, LOANS and planning like hotel, tourism and future golf courses not to mention party model, military managers in the economy, advisors, police training and tactics it has China’s hands all over it.

    Plus the term market is over the guidelines.

    Socialism use to mean workers control and democracy, proletarin internationalism and humanism.
    Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Che and Cuba’s own Celia Hart must be turning over in their graves at the misuse of the terms and words…Sure to have a better analysis soon.

  11. What an interesting post. I’ve got a Cuban brother-in-law who talks about Cuba occasionally, but you’re getting a much more contemporary view.

    While I think the blockade is a crying shame, especially for things like anesthetics and vital medicines, there is no doubt that it’s had the unintended result of making Cubans stronger and more resourceful. The Cubans who stayed after the freedom flights know what deprivation is like; they are pioneers, in a sense. I’ve seen the same resourceful, enterprising spirit in Africans who struggled to get an education against all odds and other people from ‘underdeveloped’ countries where very little is taken for granted. We used to be like that in the States too.

  12. Pingback: Lost in Cuban Translation | Here is Havana

  13. dany

    Sorry to disagree but then that’s one of the perks of writing from Canada 🙂
    I’m 39 years old born and raised in Cuba, lived there until 2006. I well remember the times when you COULD NOT disagree and people would never dream of saying anything out loud (which changed in the 90s),when in high school (La Lenin) I was taken to a local communist league meeting by one of the professors for asking in class what was going to happen to Cuba after the demise of the communist bloc and almost expelled, so I’ll leave it at that.It’s not a myth and it’s not propaganda.

    • Dany, thanks for writing in with your personal experience. You rightfully point out that things began to change in the 90s as regards this. And if you think about WHY that happened precisely in the 90s, would you say that some of the same factors that led to people “dreaming of saying things out loud” then are in place now? And perhaps even mas fuerte now than then?

      And while we can agree to disagree about whether its a myth or propaganda (and I maintain it is part myth, part propaganda and in that mire someplace lives the truth) but I find it incredible that as a student at the most elite best school in Cuba you would ask that question – especially in the time period we’re talking about when self-censorship was rabid and rampant. I know what it takes to get into La Lenin – to ask this question you were either incredibly brave or naive. Im sorry that this happened to you, but if it makes you feel any better, I WAS expelled from high school!

  14. dany

    I was naive I guess. I grew up being told not to say anything, not to reveal anything. Heck I was even baptized on the sly by my grandmothers who sneaked me out of the house and then told me not to say anything to my mother or at school. I did belong to the UJC and remember quite well the meetings and the fear and the silence.
    It reminds me of an anecdote of when Leonid Brezhnev was elected to the PCUS and what went on under Khrushchev and somebody in the audience asked “Where were you when all this was going on?” Brezhnev then asked “Who said that?” and nobody dared talk, then Brezhnev said “That’s where I was”.
    Did you hear about Pedro Pablo Oliva, the letter on his blog is very good (not what Yoanis wrote, what he himself wrote) Was he naive? 🙂

    • Good move on your abuela’s part: if they had known about that baptism, you wouldn’t have been allowed into the UJC.

      I did read about PPO’s letter (but not the actual letter); these are uncertain times. People are desperate to hold on to their jobs. Cage rattling is a dicey idea. He got bit.

  15. Pingback: Cuba: Independent Republic of Saben lo Todo | Here is Havana

  16. El Cubanito

    Hi Conner,
    I was born in Cuba and live there for the 1st 5 years of my life. Today I am 50 years old and have been going to Cuba since June 1999. That was the first time I return since I left in 1965. I have been going back since 1999 every year and I do agree with you since then I have seen more local Cubans take liverty with their speeches. There are stil things they will not openly speak about. One day maybe they will have the Speech that they do deserve, but it is very far away.

    • Thanks for stopping in at my blog El C. Maybe someday US folks (like my family!) will be able to travel here as their right, but I think that is very very far away. Happy travels!

  17. Pingback: Cuban Blockade: Cruel & Unusual | Here is Havana

  18. Pingback: Havana Bad Time (see note 1) | Here is Havana

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s