Ingenuity: Salvation for Cuba’s Private Sector

A kilogram of cans earns 13 CUP (roughly 50¢ US), so Yoerquis needs to crush the material for many hours to earn enough money to cover his expenses. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Marcelo Hernandez, Havana, 1 October 2019 — Yoerquis feels he’s in the lead as a collector of raw material. It has been a while since he reached into his imagination to create a tool that allows him to crush aluminum cans all day long without ending up with unbearable back pain.

The young man has an impromptu workshop in Havana’s Cerro municipality, where he does plumbing work and cuts custom tiles, but also collects aluminum. The kilogram of soft drink or beer cans earns 13 CUP (roughly 50¢ US), so Yoerquis needs to crush the material for many hours to get money that allows him to cover the expenses of his search, along with other members of the family, through several neighborhoods of Havana to collect materials.

That is why he manufactured a heavy cylinder by mixing concrete and pouring it into a plastic tank in whose center he had previously placed a two-inch metal tube. After removing the structure from the mold, he introduced another of smaller diameter and concluded his work. Now he spreads the cans out along his patio and passed the crusher over it several times.

“I could have improved the equipment by putting in some good bearings, but I prefer it rustic,” he explains as he takes pushes his invention from the end of his yard to the other, where he has arranged the cans of three full bags.

Of the more than half a million people who have a license to engage in private work in Cuba, it is estimated that more than 5,000 are dedicated to the collection of raw materials that end up being bought by the State in its more than 300 centers. Most of these workers must crush them one by one with a stone or a piece of pipe.

Yoerquis dreams of being able to buy a compactor or crusher that is not his improvised cylinder one day, but he also recognizes that “by the time it is possible” he will no longer be dedicated to this activity and will prefer to develop his other talents in cutting pipes and tiles. He hopes that there will be a construction boom on the Island and with it more “work orders” will arrive.

Dunia and Eric also feed their family thanks to their ingenuity. They met when they were both in high school and, after almost a quarter of a century together, decided to apply for a license to sell sweets and candy for children. Their greatest pride is to have created the machine with which they make cotton candy, the specialty that distinguishes them and that they sell at fairs and in the vicinity of some recreational parks.

To get around, the couple employs the old Lada that her father acquired decades ago thanks to his status as a “prominent worker.” The machine built by Eric with his own hands travels in the trunk of the Lada; it consists of an old metal basin that belonged to his grandmother, with a central motor that runs off a battery.

Without a wholesale market, self-employed workers in Cuba must also overcome the obstacles posed by the lack of machinery, devices and many of the apparatuses that facilitate their work. The shortages in state stores, high prices and the absence of certain types of markets force them to have to create many of the tools with which they make a living.

In some cases, the solution is to import the devices or pieces of them. And also to acquire them in the black market. But sometimes the needs are so specific that the situation is complicated and nobody is better placed than the workers themselves to determine what they are looking for and the characteristics they require.

In a country full of qualified engineers who drive taxis to survive, it is easy to run into an inventor. The need admits nothing else: either they create and repair with their own hands or they don’t have what they need.

The operation of Eric’s machine is simple. The sugar is placed in the center, in a smaller container, and the basin is rotated at high speed. An attached heat source causes the contents to melt and the centrifugal force achieves the rest.

“My family has been living off of this machine for years and we have very good sales in July and August, during the holiday months,” says Dunia. “At the beginning we had many problems trying to get the right speed and also to reach a temperature that helps create the cotton candy but does not burn sugar too much,” she explains.

“After some tests and several errors we managed to build what we wanted and now every time it breaks or needs maintenance we know very well how to fix it, we have even begun to build another one to have it for emergencies, like when a piece is broken that needs more time to fix,” adds Dunia.

The vein of invention comes from family. The mother raised a small amount of capital in the late 90s and early this century was making homemade ice cream that was then placed between two cookies. I sold it as an “ice cream snack,” a very popular product to provide relief in the heat.

The ice cream maker was built by Dunia’s father with an old Soviet-made Aurika washing machine that was very common in the houses of the Island during the years of greatest rapprochement between the Plaza of the Revolution and the Kremlin. With an added paddle on the engine and a built-in cooling system, the “refrigerator” produced ice cream for a decade.

Eric also designed a mold for making sweet cookies at home and another for candy. The couple hopes “the cotton candy making lasts a long time,” because the family economy depends on it. “Here you have to do everything, the product and the machine,” says Dunia. “If we do not do so, we would have to close the business because there is no place to go to buy any of this.”


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