Cuba’s informal market finds new space on growing internet

HAVANA (AP) – In a Telegram group chat, messages move like waves.

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

Others are offering medicines brought from outside Cuba, saying, “Write to me by proper notice.” Emoji stone lines offer antibiotics, pregnancy tests, vitamins, rash creams and more.

The message of the group, which includes 170,000 people, is just one of many that have flourished in recent years in Cuba along with a huge increase in the use of the Internet on the island controlled by the communists.

The informal sale of everything from produce to auto parts – the country’s black market – is an activity that has been boosted in Cuba’s crisis, where access to essential goods such as milk , poultry, medicine and cleaning products. it’s low. The market is technically legal, but the extent of the lawlessness, to official eyes, changes the nature of the goods sold and how they are acquired.

Before the Internet, these exchanges happened “through your contacts, your neighbors, your local community,” said Ricardo Torres, a Cuban fellow and economist at the American University in Washington. “But now, with the internet, you can visit any state.”

With recessions and economic problems at their worst in years, the online market has “exploded,” Torres said.

Busy WhatsApp groups talk about the free exchange rate, which is more pesos per dollar or euro than the official bank rate.

Meanwhile, Cuban versions of Craigslist — sites like Revolico, the country’s first buy-and-sell tool — advertise everything from electric bikes imported from other countries to “mansions” in the wealthy districts of Havana.

Many products are sold in pesos, but more expensive items are listed in dollars, and must be paid by cash or bank transfer outside the country.

Although the wealthiest Cubans – those with families who receive remittances from abroad – can afford luxury goods, many basic items are unaffordable for people like Leonardo, an engineer and the government asked that his real name not be used because he fears retaliation from the government. .

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Three months ago, Leonardo began buying items such as inhalers, antibiotics and rash cream from friends who came from other countries, and then sold them for a small amount online. The government authorities are strongly against these “revendedores,” sellers, especially those who buy products in Cuban stores and sell them at a higher price.

At the end of October, President Miguel Díaz-Canel and request that the action be cancelledreferring to the returnees as “criminals, liars, riffraff, lazy and crooked”.

“What we cannot accept is that those who don’t work, don’t donate and break the law get more and have more opportunities to live than those who do contribute. he,” he said. in a meeting with government officials. “If we do that … we will violate the principles of society.”

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

“This medicine goes to people in need, to people with respiratory problems,” he said. “The people who use it are people who really need it. … More than anything, we sell antibiotics.”

With the money he has earned from his sales, Leonardo has been 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 special degree of creative energy that Cubans have developed during decades of economic crisis. Many of the problems stemmed from the US government’s six decades of anti-commercialism, but critics say it was due to the government’s mismanagement of the economy and unwillingness to embrace the private sector.

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So the people of the island are very smart, work and everything is available to them – think of the old cars from the 1950s that are still rolling on the streets, thanks to the machines that use knowledge and spare parts to address the lack of new vehicles.

Entrepreneurs have used creativity to do things that originally had little internet access. Carlos Javier Peña and Hiram Centelles, Cuban immigrants living in Spain, founded Revolico in 2007 to help “relieve the problems of the world in Cuba.”

They designed the site, similar to Craigslist, to match the country’s slow internet. But in 2008 — the same year the government lifted restrictions on the sale of personal computers — access to Revolico was restricted. The ban remained in place until 2016. Meanwhile, Peña and Centelles used digital tools and different hosting sites to bypass the platform.

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

Heriberto, who graduated from the university in 2008, was able to access it through a small monthly internet grant the school gave him. Others asked friends and family to shop for them while they worked, sometimes going online.

“Here, most of the time you don’t have what you’re looking for,” said Heriberto, now 33, who asked that his first name be used because he also feared sanctions from the government. . “Then you develop this habit of first looking at the hero. And when they don’t, you look at Revolico.

Sales on WhatsApp, Facebook, and Telegram were particularly strong in 2018, when Cubans accessed the internet on their phones, something Torres said at the American University 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 Telecommunications Union. presentation. The internet has been a lifeline for Heriberto and other Cubans during the COVID-19 pandemic, they say.

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Now, with the main economic sector of the country, tourism, still alive, many have built entire enterprises on the online sale of goods – both necessary things such as medicine, and many of more expensive private goods. Heriberto recently used the opportunity to buy a mountain bike which he paid for in dollars.

According to Centelles, the founder of Revolico, the site has evolved with similar tools to adapt to the ever-changing Cuba. For example, when the country is suffering from a recession, sales of generators and rechargeable batteries have increased, he said.

Government officials have said the internet is important to the country’s economic growth – but it has been “taken for granted,” said Valerie Wirtschafter, a senior data analyst at the Brookings Institution who tracks internet use in Cuba.

“It hasn’t really been able to control the internet in a lot of ways,” Wirtschafter said.

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

Although Leonardo said he thinks selling on Telegram is dangerous, “in the end, you need a cure … 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 make purchases using a fake profile, he said, unlike Revolico, which requires you to provide your phone number.

“It’s very important now,” Heriberto said. “The internet has come to Cuba, and now it’s important.”


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