Cuba's informal market finds new space on growing internet

Cuba’s informal market finds new space on growing internet

HAVANA – In Telegram group chat, messages roll like waves.

“I need liquid ibuprofen and acetaminophen please,” one user wrote. “It’s urgent, it’s for my 10 month old baby.”

Others offer medicine brought from outside Cuba, adding: “Write me in a direct message. Emoji’s spotted lists feature antibiotics, pregnancy tests, vitamins, rash creams and more.

The group message, which includes 170,000 people, is just one of many that have flourished in Cuba in recent years alongside an exponential increase in internet use on the communist-ruled island.

The informal sale of everything from eggs to auto parts – the country’s so-called black market – is a centuries-old practice in crisis-stricken Cuba, where access to the most basic commodities such as milk, chicken, medicine and cleaning supplies has always been limited. The market is technically illegal, but the extent of illegality, in the eyes of the authorities, can vary depending on the type of items sold and how they were obtained.

Before the Internet, such exchanges took place “through your contacts, your neighbors, your local community,” said Ricardo Torres, a Cuban and an economics fellow at the American University of Washington. “But now, thanks to the Internet, you can contact an entire province.

With shortages and economic turmoil at its worst in years, the online market “has exploded,” Torres said.

Lively WhatsApp groups discuss the informal exchange rate, which provides more pesos per dollar or euro than the official bank rate.

Meanwhile, Cuban versions of Craigslist — sites such as Revolico, the island’s premier digital buying and selling tool — advertise everything from e-bikes imported from other countries to “capitalist apartments.” in the wealthy neighborhoods of Havana.

Many products are sold in pesos, but the most expensive items are often denominated in dollars, with payments made in cash or by bank transfer outside the country.

While the wealthiest Cubans – or those whose families send money from abroad – can afford more lavish items, many basic items remain unaffordable for people like Leonardo, an engineer employed by the State who requested that his real name not be used because he fears government reprisals. .

Three months ago, Leonardo started buying items such as inhalers, antibiotics and rash creams from friends arriving from other countries and then reselling them online for a small profit. Government authorities are harshly critical of these “resendedores,” or resellers, especially those who buy products from Cuban stores and then resell them at a higher price.

At the end of October, President Miguel Díaz-Canel called for a crackdown on the practicecalling the vendedores “criminals, crooks, scum, lazy and corrupt”.

“What we cannot allow is those who don’t work, don’t contribute and break the law to earn more and have more opportunities to live well than those who actually contribute,” he said. . in a meeting with government officials. “If we did that…we would break the concepts of socialism.”

But Leonardo said he and others like him were just trying to get by.

“This medicine is going to people who need it, people who have respiratory problems,” he said. “Those who use them are people who really need them. … More than anything else, we sell antibiotics.

With the money he earned from his sales, Leonardo was able to buy soap and food, as well as antibiotics and vitamins for his elderly parents.

The rise of new digital markets testifies to a specific brand of creative resilience that Cubans have developed over decades of economic turbulence. Much of the crisis is the result of the US government’s six-decade-long trade embargo on the island, but critics say it is also due to the government’s mismanagement of the economy and the its reluctance to embrace the private sector.

So the people of the island tend to be very resourceful, working with whatever they have – think of the old cars from the 1950s still driving the streets, thanks to mechanics using ingenuity and spare parts to deal with a shortage of new vehicles.

Entrepreneurs used the same creativity to deal with what was initially very limited internet access. Carlos Javier Peña and Hiram Centelles, Cuban expatriates living in Spain, created Revolico in 2007 to help “alleviate the difficulties of life in Cuba”.

They kept the site design simple, similar to Craigslist, to match the island’s slow internet. But in 2008, the same year the government lifted the ban on the sale of personal computers, it blocked access to Revolico. The ban remained in place until 2016. In the meantime, Peña and Centelles used digital tools and different hosting sites to circumvent the firewall.

However, using the site was still a challenge for many, given the lack of internet for cellphones.

Heriberto, a university student in 2008, was able to access it thanks to a small monthly internet package given to him by the school. Others asked friends and family to buy items for them at work, where they sometimes had internet access.

“The markets here most often don’t have what you’re looking for,” said Heriberto, now 33, who asked that only his first name be used because he also feared repercussions from the government. “So you develop this habit of looking in the store first. Then when they don’t have it, you look at Revolico.

Sales on WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram really took off in 2018, when Cubans got internet access on their phones, which Torres, a colleague from the American university, described as a “game changer”.

Between 2000 and 2021, the number of Cubans using the internet grew from less than 1% of the population to 71%, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union. The internet has been a lifeline for Heriberto and many other Cubans during the COVID-19 pandemic, they said.

Now, as the island’s main economic sector, tourism, continues to recover, many have built entire businesses on the online sale of goods – both necessities such as medicines, as well as many more expensive specialty items. Heriberto recently used the site to sell a mountain bike that was priced in dollars.

Revolico co-founder Centelles says the site and similar tools have evolved to adapt to an ever-changing Cuba. For example, as the island experiences crippling blackouts, sales of generators and rechargeable batteries have soared, he said.

Government officials have said the internet is important to the nation’s economic growth, but have treated it with “grudge acceptance,” said Valerie Wirtschafter, a senior data analyst at the Brookings Institution who tracks internet usage. Internet in Cuba.

“They’ve never really been able to control the internet in many ways,” Wirtschafter said.

Perhaps the most visible example came when mass protests erupted in 2021, thanks in large part to the rapid spread of communications on social media sites including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram. The government blocked many key social media and messaging sites for several days to prevent the protests from spreading.

While Leonardo said he considered selling on Telegram to be risky, “at the end of the day, you need medicine…so you take that risk.”

Heriberto still uses Revolico, but he said he now prefers sites like Facebook that offer some level of anonymity. On those sites, he can sell using a fake profile, he said, unlike Revolico, which requires you to post your phone number.

“It’s a basic necessity now,” Heriberto said. “The Internet has arrived in Cuba, and now it is fundamental.”

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