It was a rare moment of alliance- but one that would never be repeated, when Fulgencio Batista fell and Fidel Castro toured Washington monuments with Nixon. Returning to Cuba, Castro seized private lands, nationalised companies- including subsidiaries of U.S. corporations- and taxed American products, halving U.S. exports in just two years. For fourteen days in 1962, the world waited for Kennedy and Khrushchev to reach a compromise.
In 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, Cuba lost 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its GDP dropped by 34%. Oil imports dropped to 10% of pre-1990 amounts. Before this, Cuba had been re-exporting all unconsumed Soviet crude, making petroleum Cuba’s second largest export before 1990. Once the restored Russian Federation emerged from the former Soviet Union, its administration immediately made it clear that it had no intention of delivering petroleum that had been guaranteed to the island by the former USSR. Cuban agriculture- which was dominated by combines and harvesters was paralysed.
Today, unification of its dual currency would end a bizarre anomaly in Cuban accounting. China managed to unify twin exchange rates when it devalued the yuan in 1994. Inscribed in the foyer of the LSC in London is half of a line from Virgil’s Ǽneid- ‘rerum cognoscere causas’. The aspiration is- ‘to know the causes of things’. But what makes the Ǽneid a remarkable story is that it is impossible to know what will happen next.
The story of Cuba is identical. You cannot know the causes of things and therefore cannot predict their outcomes. Ours is an epoch of sliding foundations, untraceable causes and untrackable effects. The weakness wobbles and waywardness of our memories ensure that the past is not preserved but is only reconstructed on the basis of the present. Anticipation, like memory, is the power of seeing what is not there. Cuban culture, like all cultures, therefore becomes a planless hodgepodge- a thing of shreds and patches.
Through imagination, Cubans replace absence and re-envisage one thing as if it were something else. It is the motor of Cuban culture. Cubans act to realize a world they can imagine. Ideas do not merely represent, or record, or reproduce experience, but exceed or distort it. Ideas are products of imaginative efforts, because you cannot have them simply by describing the existing world. They ignite a train of thought that inspires new responses from others, even generating their own progeny. Models from other cultures ignite changes in direction or result in misunderstandings that intervene creatively.
This was the zeitgeist of the age of sages in the eastern Mediterranean, the renaissance and intellectual revolution of the high middle ages; and the period of scientific revolution and European ‘Enlightenment’ and the Cuban ‘Special Period in the Time of Peace’. During that time, Cubans were expected to master how machines work, spawning a movement called the- ‘National Association of Innovators and Rationalists’.
As the economy imploded, people’s creativity mushroomed. Everything had to be substituted and made by the people. Empty store shelves fashioned a new economy. Cubans were forced to think beyond the capabilities of an object and to surpass the limitations it imposed on itself. Moreover, an object levies limits on the user with its inherent technological code which can hardly satisfy all of the user’s needs.
To survive, the authority held by an industrial design had to be disregarded. A washer-dryer was compressed into a washer alone and the motor of the dryer used to make a motorised bicycle or shoe-polisher. The Cuban saw everything from the inside- everything dissembled; the whole having a reality of its own, independent of the parts. Everything that unified an object was violated. Constraints enabled the creativity of the entrapped to break free of every barrier- aesthetic, legal and economic. Their black and white silent films and the music of the Buena Vista Social Club stand alongside the ‘Thin Shell’ structures that shape Havana’s architecture and in some cases define an authentic style that is creatively Cuban, which Princeton scholars of architecture carefully study.