HAVANA (AP) — Messages are rolling in like waves in a Telegram group chat.
“I need liquid ibuprofen and acetaminophen please,” wrote one user. “It’s urgent, it’s for my 10-month-old baby.”
Others offer drugs imported from outside of Cuba, adding: “Message me directly.” Emotion lists offer antibiotics, pregnancy tests, vitamins, rash creams and more.
The group’s 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 car parts — the country’s so-called black market — is a long-standing practice in crisis-hit Cuba, where access to the most basic goods such as milk, chicken, medicine and cleaning supplies has always existed. was limited. The market is technically illegal, but the amount of illegal stuff in official eyes can vary depending on the type of items sold and how they are obtained.
Before the Internet, such exchanges took place “with your contacts, your neighbors, your local community,” said Ricardo Torres, a Cuban and a fellow in economics at American University in Washington. “But now with the Internet you can reach the entire province.”
With shortages and economic turmoil at their worst in years, the online market “has exploded,” Torres said.
Lively WhatsApp groups discuss the informal exchange rate, which gives more pesos to a 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 neighborhoods.
Many products are sold in pesos, but higher-priced items are often listed in dollars, and payments are made in cash or by bank transfer outside the country.
While wealthier Cubans, or those whose families send money from abroad, can afford more luxuries, many basic goods remain out of reach for people like Leonardo, a government-hired engineer who asked that his real name not be used for fear of government reprisals. .
Three months ago, Leonardo started buying items such as inhalers, antibiotics and rash creams from friends who came from other countries and then reselling them online for a small profit. Government authorities strongly criticize such “revengers,” or resellers, especially those who buy products from Cuban stores and then sell them at a higher price.
At the end of October, President Miguel Diaz-Canel called for action against this practicereferring to the Avengers as “criminals, cheats, 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. during meetings 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.
“These drugs are used for people who need them, people who have breathing problems,” he said. “The people who use them are the people who really need them. … More than anything else, we’re selling antibiotics.
With the money he made from the sales, Leonardo has been able to buy soap and food, as well as antibiotics and vitamins for his elderly parents.
The development of new digital markets shows 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 reluctance to engage the private sector.
That’s why people on the island tend to be very resourceful in working with whatever they have available – think of the old cars from the 1950s that still roll on the streets thanks to mechanics using ingenuity and spare parts to make up for the lack of new vehicles.
Entrepreneurs have used the same creativity to cope with what was initially very limited internet access. Carlos Javier Peña and Hiram Sentel, Cubans living in Spain, founded Revolico in 2007 to help “ease the hardships of life in Cuba.”
They kept the website design simple, similar to Craigslist, to suit the island’s slow internet. But in 2008 — the same year the government lifted its ban on PC sales — it blocked access to Revolico. The ban was in effect until 2016. In the meantime, Peña and Centelles used digital tools and various 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 with a small monthly internet package given to him by the school. Others asked friends and family to buy them items at work, where they sometimes had access to the Internet.
“The markets here often 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 government repercussions. “So you get into this habit of looking in the store first. Then when they don’t, you look at Revolico.
Sales on WhatsApp, Facebook and Telegram really took off in 2018 when Cubans gained access to the internet on their phones, which American University fellow Torres described as a “game changer”.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, between 2000 and 2021, the number of Cubans using the Internet increased from less than 1% of the population to 71%. shows. They said the Internet was a lifeline for Heriberto and many other Cubans during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now that the island’s main economic sector, tourism, is still recovering, many have set up entire businesses to sell goods online, both essentials such as medicine and many specialty items at a higher price. Heriberto recently used the site to sell a mountain bike priced in dollars.
Revolico co-founder Centelles says the site and similar tools have evolved to adapt to the ever-changing Cuba. For example, as the island suffers from crippling power outages, sales of power generators and rechargeable batteries have soared, he said.
Government officials have said the Internet is important to the country’s economic growth but have treated it with “poor acceptance,” said Valerie Wirthshafter, a senior data analyst at the Brookings Institution who tracks Internet use in Cuba.
“They’ve never been able to control the Internet in many ways,” Wirtschafter said.
Perhaps the most obvious example was when mass protests broke out in 2021, largely due to the rapid spread of communication on social media sites including Facebook, WhatsApp, Instagram and Telegram. The government blocked many major social media and messaging sites for several days to stop the protests from spreading.
Although Leonardo said he thinks selling on Telegram is risky, “at the end of the day, you need the 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. He said he can sell on those sites using a fake profile, unlike Revolico, which requires you to put your phone number.
“It’s a basic need now,” Heriberto said. “The Internet has arrived in Cuba, and now it’s essential.”