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  HOME | Cuba

Extending Products’ Useful Life, a Coveted Service in Crisis-Hit Cuba

HAVANA – Cigarette lighter refiller, cookware cleaner and umbrella and eyeglass repairer are some of the jobs that provide a living to entrepreneurial-minded people in Cuba, where replacing items that are broken or in disrepair is not an option due to the Caribbean nation’s chronic shortages.

Ubiquitous on any street in the Communist-ruled country, some of these individuals hawk their services while riding from block to block on a bicycle or cart while others set up a workshop at the door of their homes.

But all have one thing in common: a constant flow of customers on an island where nothing ends up in the waste bin.

Now aged 59, Luis Garcia has spent the past 15 years cleaning and restoring pots, frying pans and other cookware that are so caked in grime that they would have been thrown away in virtually any other country.

But not here.

Working in the interior patio of an old house in Old Havana, surrounded by the beams that support the precarious structure and under a cat’s watchful eye, Garcia uses a combination of an open fire, cold water and a polishing machine to get the utensils looking like new.

“It’s a way of keeping up the struggle, earning an honest living and helping people who can’t buy much cookware. Their budgets don’t allow for that much,” he said with a laugh while a fire raged over an upside-down pot covered in grease and a thick layer of soot from years of use.

“To get the gunk off,” Garcia added.

After applying the high heat, he said he uses cold water to clean the cookware and then a machine for polish and shine.

“They look like new,” he said of a process that lasts a half hour and requires a very skillful hand to avoid burning the pots.

“Things aren’t made like they used to be,” he said, adding that the newer aluminum cooking utensils are cheap and flimsy and more susceptible to melting.

Kitchenware and other household items are highly valued by Cubans but very difficult to find. The steady decline of Cuba’s manufacturing sector has led to an ever-shrinking number of local products available for purchase on store shelves, which instead are stocked with imported products that are costlier and of dubious quality.

While intermittent supply shortages have always been a fact of life in the Caribbean nation, the current scarcity stemming from a stiffening of the United States’ decades-old economic embargo by former President Donald Trump’s administration and a plunge in aid from oil-rich but crisis-hit ally Venezuela has exacerbated the situation.

Cuba’s government has a monopoly on retail establishments and, due to a lack of sufficient hard currency, is currently unable to import enough products to meet the population’s demand for an array of basic goods, from light bulbs to umbrellas.

The black market on the island had covered the supply gaps for years, particularly over the past decade.

But the coronavirus pandemic triggered a series of flight restrictions to countries such as Mexico and Panama, preventing Cuban “mulas” (black-market sellers) from traveling to those places to buy products for later resale in the Caribbean nation.

Another classic example of Cuba’s waste-not consumer culture is lighter refilling, a service provided by vendors such as Marcel Lescan.

The 43-year-old’s hands are always moving as he refills lighters in La Copa, a busy commercial zone in western Havana’s Miramar neighborhood where he sets up his cart for business.

Shielded from the sun by an umbrella, Lescan offers services that range in cost from five to 25 pesos (between $0.20 and $1) and include the refilling of the compressed gas, stone replacement and various other repairs of those devices.

“You have to be born for this. I could put a mechanical engineer here (in my place) and he wouldn’t do all these things and wouldn’t know where the gas goes. Just looking and touching the lighter, I know what’s wrong,” he said while smoking a cigarette, seemingly unconcerned about igniting the liquid gas stored in containers on his table.

He is mainly asked to refill or repair customers’ classic, non-reusable lighters, a task that typically causes him little difficulty.

Like lighters and cookware, many other items that would be discarded most anywhere else in the world are given a second chance in Cuba.

They include umbrellas and sun shades, which people use all year long on the island to shield themselves from both the frequent rain on that tropical island and the potent rays of the merciless Caribbean sun.

So-called “espejueleros,” meanwhile, skillfully repair eyeglass frames, an item that Cuban immigrants living abroad ordinarily would be able to send back to their relatives on the island if not for the current coronavirus-triggered travel restrictions.

Mattress springs are another specialty, while many businesses serve as a one-stop shop for people’s repair needs, putting up a sign outside that simply reads, “we fix anything.”

 

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