Cuba’s informal market is finding a new place on the growing internet

HAVANA (AP) — Messages roll in like waves in a Telegram group chat.

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

Others suggest drugs imported from outside of Cuba and add: “Direct message me.” Emoji-stained lists include 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 the exponential growth of Internet use on the communist-ruled island.

The informal sale of everything from eggs to car parts – the country’s black market – is an old practice in crisis-hit Cuba, where access to basic goods such as milk, chicken, medicine and cleaning products is always a problem. is restricted. The market is technically illegal, but according to official views, the extent of illegality can vary depending on the type of items sold and how they are obtained.

Before the Internet, such exchanges were done “through your connections, your neighbors, your local community,” says Ricardo Torres, a Cuban and economics fellow at the American University in Washington. “But now with the Internet, you can connect with them. a whole province”.

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

Loud WhatsApp groups discuss an unofficial exchange rate that provides more pesos to the dollar or euro than the official bank rate.

Meanwhile, Cuban 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 products are often denominated in dollars, with payments made either in cash or by bank transfer outside the country.

While wealthier Cubans — or those with families who send money from abroad — can afford more luxurious items, many essentials remain out of reach for people like Leonardo, a government engineer who asked that his real name not be used for fear of government reprisals. .

Three months ago, Leonardo started buying things like inhalers, antibiotics and rash creams from friends in other countries, which he then resold online for a small profit. Government authorities are cracking down on such “buyers” or resellers, especially those who buy products from Cuban stores and sell them at high prices.

In late October, President Miguel Diaz-Canel called for a crackdown on the practice, calling traffickers “criminals, frauds, lazy and corrupt.”

“We cannot allow 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. “If we did that … we would violate the concepts of socialism.”

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

“This medicine is given to people who need it, people who have breathing problems,” he said. “The people who use them are the people who really need them. …We sell more antibiotics than anything else.”

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

The rise of new digital markets speaks to a special 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 trade embargo on the island, but critics say it is also due to the government’s mismanagement of the economy and unwillingness to include the private sector.

As such, people on the island tend to be highly skilled at making do with whatever they have – think of the vintage cars from the 1950s that still ply the streets thanks to ingenuity and spare parts mechanics to solve the shortage of new vehicles.

Entrepreneurs used the same creativity to overcome initially very limited internet access. Carlos Xavier Peña and Hiram Centelles, Cuban expatriates living in Spain, founded Revolico in 2007 to “alleviate the hardships of life in Cuba.”

To accommodate the island’s slow internet, they kept the site design as simple as Craigslist. But in 2008—the same year the government lifted its ban on the sale of personal computers—it blocked access to Revolico. The ban remained in effect until 2016. Meanwhile, Peña and Centelles used digital tools and various host sites to bypass the firewall.

The site was still difficult for many to use, however, given the lack of mobile internet.

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

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