Bicycling is different in Cuba than it is in America. In Cuba, biking is largely done out of necessity, while most American cyclists bike for leisure or out of a love of biking, with other, easier transportation options often available. Also different is that new bicycle parts are relatively unavailable in Cuba, leading bike mechanics to have to make do with what parts are already on the island. Part of a mechanic’s skill lies in their ability to make creative use of these parts, often modifying them or repurposing them for another use. This creativity and ability of Cubans to manage with scarce bike resources is something that inspires awe in the average American, but for them it is not done out of any deep love for the creativity itself, but rather out of a lack of other available options.
Given the ability for humans to do so much with so little, it makes us wonder how this creative force can be harnessed in other environments. How can this philosophy of reuse be repurposed by us and applied to situations where, even though other parts are available, we can do something to reuse those that have already been produced? What can Champaign-Urbana learn from Cuban bike mechanics?
Havana, owing to the US embargo and its political policies, is known for its ability to function importing few goods and recycling those that it has. In this way, they function to some extent outside of the global area that much of the rest of the world lives in. This has been fairly widely discussed with respect to its cars, many of which are of American build from the 40s and 50s. Though for Americans and many others, these cars evoke romantic images of times past, for Cubans they are mundane and merely a symptom of their reality.
Less known and less discussed are its bikes, which are also mechanics’ creativity and ability to recycle. Beginning in the 1990s, due to the ending of financial support from other countries following the fall of the USSR and the Eastern Socialist Bloc, bicycles began to take on greater importance as a means of transportation. In the short film, Havana Bikes, videographer Diego Vivanco and producer Ian Clark explore this issue. Times have changed since the 90s with state-run bicycle factories closing and an increase in the importation of gasoline, leading many residents to again use cars as their main means of transportation. This, though, if anything, has only increased the need for mechanics to find solutions to problems due to lack of parts and to continue servicing their Frankenstein bikes.Many Cubans continue to use bikes as their primary means of transit. Bikes are used to get to work and school, to move merchandise or personal items, and to transport people in bicitaxis.
Another related issue is that of the Riquimbili. These are bikes that have been modified by adding a motor to them in a way that is both inventive and (somewhat) frightening. Often gas tanks are made of plastic soda bottles. Regardless of safety concerns, this again shows Cubans’ inventiveness for making the best of what they have and functioning without the constant production of new goods that mediates American life.
For more on this story, see Diego Vivanco’s write-up. Let us know what you think CU can do to harness this creative energy!