Cuba's informal market finds new space on growing internet

Cuba’s informal market finds new space on growing internet

By MEGAN JANETSKY, Associated press

HAVANA — In the Telegram group chat, messages roll in like waves.

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

Others offer medicine brought from outside Cuba, adding: “Write me in a direct message. Emoji’s spotted lists feature 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 an exponential increase in internet use on the communist-ruled island.

The informal sale of everything from eggs to auto parts – the country’s so-called black market – is a centuries-old practice in crisis-stricken Cuba, where access to the most basic commodities such as milk, chicken, medicine and cleaning supplies has always been limited. The market is technically illegal, but the extent of illegality, in the eyes of the authorities, can vary depending on the type of items sold and how they were obtained.

Before the Internet, such exchanges took place “through your contacts, your neighbors, your local community,” said Ricardo Torres, a Cuban and an economics fellow at the American University of Washington. “But now, thanks to the Internet, you can reach an entire province.”

With shortages and economic turmoil at its worst in years, the online market “has 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, Cuban versions of Craigslist — sites such as Revolico, the island’s premier digital buying and selling tool — advertise everything from e-bikes imported from other countries to “capitalist apartments.” in the wealthy neighborhoods of Havana.

Many products are sold in pesos, but the most expensive items are often denominated in dollars, with payments made in cash or by bank transfer outside the country.

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