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

By MEGAN JANETSKY, Associated press

HAVANA — 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 and economics expert at American University in 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.