Cuba’s informal market finds new space on growing internet

HAVANA (AP) – In Telegram’s group chat, the messages flow like waves.

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

Others offer medicines brought from outside Cuba, adding, “Write to me in a direct message.” Emoji-stained lists offer 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 recent years in Cuba along with an exponential growth in internet usage on the communist-ruled island.

The informal sale of everything from eggs to car parts – the country’s so-called black market – is an ancient practice in crisis-hit Cuba, where access to the most basic items such as milk, chicken, medicines and cleaning products is always available. was limited. The market is technically illegal, but the extent of illegality, in official eyes, can vary depending 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 and economics fellow at American University in Washington. “But now, with the internet, you can contact an entire province.”

With shortages and economic turmoil at the worst they’ve been in years, the Internet market “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, Cuba’s versions of Craigslist — sites like Revolico, the island’s first digital buying and selling tool — advertise everything from electric bicycles imported from other countries to “capitalist apartments” in Havana’s wealthy districts.

Many products are sold in pesos, but higher-priced items are often listed in dollars, with payments either handled in cash or via bank transfers outside the country.

While wealthier Cubans – or those with families sending money from abroad – can afford more lavish items, many basics remain out of reach for people like Leonardo, a state engineer who asked that his real name not be used because he fears government retribution. .

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Three months ago, Leonardo began buying items such as inhalers, antibiotics and rash creams from friends arriving from other countries, then reselling them for a small profit online. Government authorities are severely criticizing such “revendores”, or resellers, especially those who buy products in Cuban stores and then sell them at a higher price.

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

“What we cannot allow is that those who do not work, do not contribute and break the law, 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,” 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 the 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 a result of the US government’s six-decade trade embargo on the island, but critics say it is also due to government mismanagement of the economy and reluctance to embrace the private sector.

So people on the island tend to be very resourceful, working with whatever they have available to them – think of old cars from the 1950s that are still rolling around the streets, thanks to mechanics using ingenuity and spare parts to cope with shortages of new vehicles.

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Entrepreneurs used the same creativity to deal with what was initially very limited internet access. Carlos Javier Peña and Hiram Centelles, Cuban expatriates who live 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 sluggish internet. But in 2008 — the same year the government lifted a 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 bypass the firewall.

Using the website was still a challenge for many, however, due to the lack of mobile internet.

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

“Here, the markets more often than not don’t have the things 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 first in the store. Then when they don’t have it, you look at Revolic.”

Sales on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Telegram really took off in 2018, when Cubans gained access to the internet on their phones, something that a fellow American university student 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%, according to data from the International Telecommunication Union. shows The Internet has been a lifeline for Heriberto and many other Cubans during the COVID-19 pandemic, they said.

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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 medicine, as well as many higher-priced specialties. Heriberto recently used the site to sell a mountain bike, which he priced in dollars.

Revolico co-founder Centelles says the website and similar tools have evolved to adapt to a constantly changing Cuba. For example, as the island suffers crippling blackouts, sales of power generators and rechargeable batteries have exploded, 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 tracks internet usage in Cuba.

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

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

While Leonardo said he considers it risky to sell through Telegram, “in the end, you need medicine … so you assume that risk.”

Heriberto still uses Revolico, but he 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,” said Heriberto. “The Internet arrived in Cuba, and now it is fundamental.”



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