Cuba’s informal market finds new space on the growing Internet

HAVANA (AP) – In Telegram group chat, messages come in waves.

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

Others offer medicines brought from outside Cuba, adding: “Write me in a direct message.” Dotted lists of emojis offer antibiotics, pregnancy tests, vitamins, rash creams, and more.

The message from the group, 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 car parts – the country’s so-called black market – is an established practice in crisis-hit Cuba, where access to the most basic goods such as milk, chicken, medicines and cleaning supplies it has always been limited. The market is technically illegal, but the degree of illegality, in official eyes, can vary based on the type of items sold and how they were obtained.

Before the Internet, such exchanges happened “through your contacts, your neighbors, your local community,” said Ricardo Torres, a Cuban economics and researcher at the American University of Washington. “But now, through the Internet, you can reach an entire province.”

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

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

Meanwhile, Cuban versions of Craigslist — sites like Revolico, the island’s first digital shopping tool — advertise everything from electric bicycles brought in from other countries to “capitalist apartments” in Havana’s affluent neighborhoods.

Many products are sold in pesos, but more expensive items are often quoted in dollars, with payments handled in cash or via bank transfers from outside the country.

While wealthier Cubans – or those with families who send money from abroad – can afford more lavish items, many basic items remain inaccessible to people like Leonardo, a civil servant engineer who asked not to use his real name because he fears government retaliation.

Three months ago, Leonardo started buying items like inhalers, antibiotics and rash creams from friends who flew in from other countries, and then resold them online for a small profit. Government authorities are sharply critical of such “revendedores,” or resellers, especially those who buy products in Cuban stores and then resell them at a higher price.

At the end of October, President Miguel Díaz-Canel he called for a crackdown on the practicereferring to revendedores as “criminals, swindlers, rogue, 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. during a meeting with government officials. “If we did that… we would break the concepts of socialism.”

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

“This medicine goes to people who need it, people who have breathing problems,” she said. “Those who use them are people who really need them. … More than anything, we sell antibiotics.

With the money 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 speaks to a specific brand of creative resilience that Cubans have developed during decades of economic turmoil. Much of the crisis is the result of the US government’s six-decade-long trade embargo on the island, but critics say it’s also due to the government’s mishandling of the economy and a reluctance to embrace the private sector.

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

Entrepreneurs have used the same creativity to address what was initially very limited Internet access. Carlos Javier Peña and Hiram Centelles, Cuban expatriates living in Spain, created Revolico in 2007 to help “ease the hardships of life in Cuba.”

They kept the site design simple, similar to Craigslist, to accommodate the island’s slow internet. But in 2008, the same year the government lifted its ban on the sale of personal computers, it blocked access to Revolico. The ban lasted until 2016. Meanwhile, Peña and Centelles used digital tools and multiple host sites to get past the firewall.

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

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

“Here the markets most often don’t have what you are looking for,” said Heriberto, now 33, who asked to use only his name because he also feared repercussions from the government. “So you develop this habit of looking into 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 access to the internet on their phones, something American University colleague Torres described as a “game changer.”

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

Now, with the island’s main economic sector, tourism, still recovering, many have built entire businesses on the online sale of goods, both basic necessities such as medicines, as well as many more expensive specialty items. Heriberto recently used the site to sell a mountain bike that he valued 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 suffers from crippling blackouts, sales of power generators and rechargeable batteries have skyrocketed, he said.

Government officials have said the internet is important to the country’s economic growth but have treated it with “grudging acceptance,” said Valerie Wirtschafter, a senior data analyst at the Brookings Institution who monitors internet use 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 social media and key messaging sites for several days to prevent the protests from spreading.

While Leonardo said he considered selling on Telegram risky, “in the end, you need medicine … so you take that risk.”

Heriberto still uses Revolico, but said he now prefers sites like Facebook that offer a 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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