Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Cuba's black market moves online with

Cuba's black market moves online with
By Tim Elfrink

Mateo Velazquez might just be the best mecánico in Havana, Cuba.

The cars that roll into his little garage — tucked into a crumbling building on Calle Ocho amid Guanabacoa's decrepit colonials — would make an American mechanic laugh like hell.

There are '53 Chevys, lime green and the length of a school bus. Nearby are rusty Russian-made 1972 Ladas and late-'50s Buicks with tail fins like surfboards.

Mateo keeps them all running — a jerry-rigged gas tank in the trunk here, a duct-taped exhaust pipe there.

He learned to do it while growing up in Cienfuegos and Havana, where the embargo has kept new American cars off the roads for almost a half-century. The 55-year-old with a scratchy voice was a boy the last time a fresh Caddy rolled into Cuba.

He is a damn good mechanic, but Mateo, like most of his homeland, is struggling today.

Three hurricanes tore through the island last summer, pummeling his ground-level shop with floodwater and cutting power to his second-floor apartment. Now the global financial meltdown has left the capital city short of bread, toilet paper, and cash to fix old cars.

But two months ago, Mateo got a glimpse of the future. One of his three kids, 23-year-old Manuel, wanted to join some friends on a trip to the north coast. For months, father and son tried to unload some expensive rims to raise money. Though Manuel thought they were worth 300 pesos — about $325 — no one was biting.

"Dad," Manuel finally said, "have you heard about Revolico?"

Revolico? In Cuban slang, it means "a mess." Mateo had no idea what his boy was talking about.

So Manuel took his father to the house of a friend, an engineer with spotty Internet access at home. They logged onto and discovered a capitalist Valhalla. There was everything for sale: cars, tires, motorcycles, diapers, cell phones, laptops, massages, Chinese lessons.

"This was my first time on the Internet," Mateo says in Spanish, using the international term for the web. New Times agreed not to publish his real name because selling on the site is illegal on the island. "But I can see that it is great. Like all Cubans, I want to use it more."

Revolico, in fact, is Craigslist for the world's last Marxist-Leninist state. On an island where selling almost anything on the street, over the airwaves, or in the newspaper is forbidden by the socialist constitution, Revolico offers tens of thousands of items. Legions of Habaneros shop on the site every day, making it the most obvious crack yet in the foundation of Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Scores of Revolico users interviewed over the past month include a wide swath of island dwellers — from first-time Internet users such as Mateo to web-savvy college kids. By bringing Cuba's huge black market online, the site has changed the way residents think about buying and selling.

"Revolico absolutely blows my mind," says Jose Gabilondo, a Florida International University law professor who has spent years studying Cuba's economy. "It shows how Castro's era will end with a whimper. His control is failing there one online deal at a time."


The Founders

Jose Rodriguez was born in Havana a few years before his homeland's messy divorce from the imploding Soviet Union. It wasn't an easy time to be a kid in the capital city. When the Berlin Wall fell and Moscow shrugged off Communism, millions of Russian rubles stopped flowing into Castro's coffers. American leaders tightened their embargo on the island — making life even more dire for ordinary Habaneros.

Buying and selling almost anything outside state-owned stores had been illegal ever since Castro grabbed control of nearly the entire economy in 1968. But even during those early years of socialism, people sold cigarettes, food, and shoes in Havana's alleys and backrooms.

During Jose's childhood, that market exploded. From 1989 to 1993, the mercado negro grew sevenfold, from 2 billion pesos to 14.5 billion, according to a study by the semi-independent Cuban forum Editorial Ciencias Sociales.

Jose's parents were both ordinary, state-employed professionals, so he grew up depending on the black market for food and clothes. He was always good at math and science. So was his best friend, another nerdy city kid, Juan Sanchez.

During the long, sweltering summer of 1997, a friend introduced the two 16-year-olds to a middleman with an original Pentium computer. They were fascinated. Personal computers were forbidden. Jose and Juan bought it for a few dollars.

"We were like many others in Cuba," Jose says. "The computer interested us because it was foreign and modern."

The two disassembled the hard drive and put it back together. A few weeks later, they bought a keyboard. Days after that, they purchased a grainy black-and-green pixel monitor. "We started with this outdated trash, and we taught ourselves how it all worked," Jose says.

By the time the friends enrolled at the University of Havana (where Fidel once attended law school) in 2000, they understood computers better than many of their teachers. The embargo had kept high-tech American PCs off the island, and the recent influx of Chinese computers to Cuba hadn't kept pace with technology. The two friends also knew pretty much every black-market computer geek in Havana.

Around 2003, Jose joined an email list that circulated among his hacker pals and back-alley electronics sellers around the capital. A few days later, he bought a hard drive someone advertised in one of the emails.
But as the list's users invited friends and family — and computer access slowly spread in Havana — the emails began selling more than just computer parts. Soon cars, services, food, and motorcycles were being hawked. The emails reached hundreds of people around Havana, well outside Jose's group of friends.

"We knew this one black market, for computers and electronics, but we were surprised at how quickly all these other sellers came together," he says.

Jose and Juan decided to organize the email lists by product. One list was for computers, another for cars. But there was just too much. The lists, Jose decided, had become a revolico — a big mess.

So in December 2007, the two friends — both done with college and working as programmers — built a website for all the ads. Jose modeled it on Craigslist, a site he'd studied at the university.

The project was a colossal risk. Jose and Juan were putting a black market on the web and offering Cubans an open forum on the Internet. The site is registered through, a company based in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Jose says the state didn't approve the site, and he hosted it on servers outside Cuba to minimize the risk of authorities linking him to the site. If he censored political posts, he believed, they might not shut it down.

However, Jose declined to give New Times his real name or to identify his partner. His story is impossible to verify independently.

He clearly never intended the site as an act of defiance. He says he simply wanted to make things a little better in Havana. "Everyone in Cuba uses the black market because you have to. We wanted to make it a little easier," he explains. "At least for those who have Internet."


Young Cubans

Sasha Rodriguez squirmed in the thick, wet air of the Havana summer of 1999, her tanned face ghostly in the blue and white light glowing from an ancient monitor. "Isn't it time yet?" she whispered to a friend. Four others who had crammed into the stifling, cluttered room nodded and grumbled.

"No," her friend whispered back. "We have to wait till midnight or it won't work."

A flash of excitement shot up Sasha's spine. The teenagers were breaking not only their parents' rules, but also Cuban law. They'd used even older computers at school to type essays about the revolution, but Sasha's friend, Enrique, a daring boy who was good with computers, had promised something special tonight.

Just past midnight, Enrique double-clicked an icon and held his hand over the modem. The teenagers held their breath as the dial-up tone beeped, clicked, and hissed. But Enrique's parents, snoring in the next room, didn't stir.

"Here we go," he breathed, as the screen slowly loaded a teen chat room.

Sasha held her breath as her friend typed a message on the screen: ¡Hola! ¿Quién está en Miami?

A boy their age named Mike chatted back. He lived in Miami, he said. ¿Como está la Habana?

The friends gasped and laughed. They spent hours in that room, waiting as their tenuous dial-up died and reconnected. They asked their new friend about life in the Magic City. "For me, it was like, 'Oh my God. Miami actually exists outside of my imagination. There are kids like me living there," Sasha says. "It was life-changing."

The chat nearly a decade ago now seems a lifetime away to the erudite 22-year-old Michigan State law student, who left Cuba for South Florida in 2005. (She asked that her first name be changed because she frequently returns to the island to see family.) But it's exactly the kind of experience that has shaped a generation of young Cubans who are connected to the world outside their totalitarian island. It's something their parents and older siblings never knew.

Only about 200,000 Cubans have regular access to the Internet, according to a 2007 study — the most recent available — by the International Telecommunications Union. That amounts to just 2 percent of the population — by far the lowest percentage in Latin America.

Most people log on at schools or businesses, where the web is tightly restricted by censors. But, as Sasha discovered, many young, savvy Cubans have found illegal hookups. Some hack into phone lines or buy legit Internet time from journalists or lawyers who receive state web access and earn a few bucks by selling off the bandwidth.

That's only the latest development in the black market. Sasha recalls its long history in the area she grew up — Ernest Hemingway's crumbling neighborhood, which is now called 10 de Octubre. Her father worked at a state-controlled bakery, and at home her mother made and sold illegal pastelitos, pan, and empanadas to neighbors.

These days, Sasha says, her friends and relatives living on the island have turned to the web for some of the transactions that used to happen on street corners and in living rooms. "My friends are all on Facebook, they're emailing, and they're talking online," she says. "Cuba used to be a place where you connected to your neighbors, your classmates, but that was it. You were walled off. Not anymore."

Of course, there's a dark side to that growing access. Just ask Giselle Recarey Delgado. She grew up in one of the most dangerous places in Havana — a house with two dissident parents. Her father, Hector Palacio, spoke out frequently about Fidel Castro's human rights abuses. Secret police raided Giselle's home more than five times and dragged her dad to jail. Once he stayed there for four years. Her mother, Gisela Delgado, still runs Cuba's Independent Library Project, a group that hosts reading sessions of banned books at its members' homes.

Throughout her childhood, Giselle felt the heat from her parents' activism. At school, teachers segregated her from other students, and secret police followed her home. Despite her high marks, the University of Havana refused to admit her, until her father threatened to talk to foreign media.

At the university, where she enrolled in 2003, she studied computer science — and got a front-row seat to Cuba's rapidly changing online culture. "It's not a major where they can just ram party politics down your throat," Giselle says, laughing. "So it's a natural place for change."

But in 2007, just before Giselle was due to graduate, the university expelled her. The stated reason: She refused to sign a form condemning her parents' activism.

But she suspects it had as much to do with the government's rising fears. Someone so untrustworthy couldn't be allowed access to government-run computers and the Internet. "They understand what the web can do to them. You can't control it," says Giselle, who earned political asylum after her expulsion from school and now studies at the University of Miami.

"It scares them," she says. "And it should."


The Sellers

What follows are a few examples of the ads and sellers on Revolico. New Times has withheld some information about the sellers to protect them from possible prosecution by Cuban authorities. Ads and interviews, which were conducted by phone, have been translated.

Subject: I give Chinese classes

Date: August 21, 2009

I teach Chinese — phonetics, grammar, writing, and everything about the language. If you're interested, call after 9 p.m.

Name: Mileidys and Ernesto

Twenty-eight-year-old Ernesto is overeducated and underpaid. The Havana native has degrees in psychology and sociology. His wife, Mileidys, has degrees in psychology and Chinese.

They're more comfortable than most — Ernesto works at a cultural center and as a part-time professor at the University of Havana. Mileidys heads a human resources department for a telephone company. But in July, they decided they needed some extra cash.

So twice a week in the living room, after she returns home at 8 p.m., Mileidys coaches students in Mandarin grammar and spelling. As the Chinese invest millions in the production of nickel and the telecom industry in Cuba, interest in the language has spiked. She charges two dollars a meeting.

On a recent summer day, Ernesto answers the phone after the third ring. The line crackles over the Florida Straits.

"My wife has a class of about five pretty advanced students, which started about three months ago. It's mostly grad students, but a few middle-age ladies are doing it too. There aren't a huge number of people studying Chinese in Cuba, but I think the number is growing — people want to travel there and to work with Chinese business.

"You know, the black market has always been in Havana. Revolico, it's the same market, just online. You'll find more on the street corners, of course. People are scared, for good reason, to put too much stolen stuff out there on the web.

"Just remember: All the important business in Cuba is done by the state.

"Castro owns the bread. Revolico just moves the crumbs."

Subject: Guitar lessons: all ages and skills welcome

Date: August 12, 2009

I give classes in acoustic, popular, and electric guitar. I have a music degree and can teach in your house. Call 05293**** or write to me at *** Thanks!

Name: Jorge

Jorge, a music teacher in central Havana, answers his cell phone on a busy street.

"I charge three dollars a lesson. You want to learn? I can teach anything: folk, classical, electric, concert. I studied guitar for years, my friend.

"I produce music also, so if you're good, I can help you put a record together.

"Revolico? Yeah, I've been using it for a while now. I don't know when I started. You know what? This isn't the kind of conversation I can really have on my cell phone out in the open. Maybe email me later. Bye."

Subject: Convertible Ford, 1956, luxury!

Date: August 26, 2009

This, friends, is the only place to find this car. Very hot, very exclusive, great engine, good upholstery and painting (white and green). All original, V8 motor. I'll put photos on the web soon. Interested? Call 203****, ask for Enrique or Juan. We'll show it to you whenever you want.

Name: Enrique and Juan

Juan is a government engineer with some cash to burn — and his ride shows it. Most Cubans make 20 bucks a month; Sanchez wants 13,000 pesos, or more than $14,000, for his '56 Ford.

It's worth it, he says, for a pristine classic in a country full of barely running Yank tanks.

"Yeah, it's a lot of money. But I already had one guy call today wanting to see some photos. It's a beautiful car — classic and in great condition.

Interested in a cherry-red 1955 Plymouth? It's listed for 5,000 pesos ($5,300).
Interested in a cherry-red 1955 Plymouth? It's listed for 5,000 pesos ($5,300).
This über-mod '63 German scooter is a steal at 1,600 pesos, or $1,782.
This über-mod '63 German scooter is a steal at 1,600 pesos, or $1,782.

Subject(s):, Cuba, Fidel Castro, Craigslist, Revolico

"I've never used Revolico before, but I'm impressed in what it can do. A car this expensive, you can't easily sell it to people you'd meet in everyday life. I needed to reach more people.

"I'm selling it because I need the money. That's all I really want to tell you.

"As far as I know, this is all legal. If someone finds me on this site, we'll go through the legal process to transfer the car title. It's not something bad; it's positive. It's just a tool to do transactions you'd do anyway, and it's making life better."

Subject: Rent a new car with a driver — trips to anywhere in Havana

Date: August 10, 2009

Want a friendly new car with excellent comfort so you can make a trip anywhere you want, 24 hours a day, in Havana? We have reasonable prices according to your destination. We've got an experienced girl who's a great driver.

Name: Enrique

The guy who placed the ad doesn't answer the phone. But his driver, Fany, a young woman with a high-pitched, urgent voice, picks up.

"We've got a nice car, a white Lada. Yeah, I'll drive for anyone. I don't care if you're not Cuban. We can pick you up at the airport when you get to town. Just give me two days' notice, I'm there."

Subject: Hello, I'm looking for the woman of my dreams, a girl both beautiful and mature

Date: August 26, 2009

I live in Havana. I'm a very romantic and tender boy. I like to enjoy life every moment and to dance. I'm well off financially, and I'm spontaneous and natural. I'm searching for a woman to share her life with me. I work in the Hotel Nacional. Chat with me on my MSN account, or call my cell phone.

Name: Michel

Revolico also includes boys looking for girls and vice versa, ladies looking for ladies, dudes looking for dudes, and even a whole section for relaciones ocasionales.

There are plenty of earnest young Cubans like this 23-year-old with an anthropology degree and a boring job manning the desk at one of Havana's most exclusive hotels. The towering Art Deco jewel on the Malecón next to Havana Harbor caters to the wealthiest foreign tourists and dignitaries.

Michel, a sharp-featured man with square glasses and spiked black hair, proudly wears bulbous headphones and a grim expression in his profile photos. (New Times has changed Michel's name and some personal details; otherwise his ad would be easy to identify.) He wants to find a wife.

"I posted on Revolico to get to know people. The site's very popular right now. I posted only a few weeks ago, but one Cuban girl wrote to me. We've had trouble staying in touch, though, because she doesn't have much Internet access. Most Cubans don't. I'm lucky to work at a hotel with Internet for the guests.

"But as far as the tourists, I can't talk to them. We're forbidden from asking where they're staying or what they're doing in Cuba."

Subject: Diapers and baby wipes

Date: August 13, 2009

We charge by weight. Huggies and Pampers.

Name: Leonela

A middle-age-sounding woman answers the phone in what sounds like a busy kitchen. It's difficult to hear her over the banging pots and yelling. But it's clear she has a serious black-market-diaper hookup. In fact, she might just be the hot-diaper queen of Havana.

"Send me an email and I'll answer your questions. I've been able to exchange things on this site before. We're cooking lunch right now, so I don't want to talk."

Subject: Single women and girls, check this out, babes: I'm looking for a hot Cuban

Date: August 31, 2009

Hello, I'm a young man with eyes the color of coffee. My name is Pablo. My telephone is 796***. Send me a message.

Name: Pablo

The tan, rangy 19-year-old with a long face wears a goofy, crooked smile in all of his online photos.

He lives with his parents in Guanabo, a small beach town an hour northwest of Havana, and works in a hospital, massaging the stiff joints and tight backs of his town's elderly pensionistas.

It's not easy to meet girls there, so his sister, who lives and works in Germany, sent him a computer last month. He buys black-market Internet time, and posts almost every day in Revolico's personal sections.

"I'm off today, but I work six days a week at a hospital as a massage therapist. I've been making new friends on Revolico. It's a great site. I make decent money at my job, and we began renting out rooms in our house to tourists after my dad's heart attack.

"I have a lot of friends who use Revolico. It brings you connections to people, but you have to be careful. One friend ordered some parts, and when they brought them over, they were all broken. Some people use the site just to take advantage, to defraud people."

Subject: American car, '55 Plymouth
Date: August 23, 2009

American '55 Plymouth in mint condition. The motor and upholstery are good. I've put photos here for you to check it out. My telephone is 05** for Julio, or 765*** for my neighbor Silvia, or 765*** for my other neighbor, Maria. I want 5,000 pesos [$5,300] for the car. But the price is negotiable.

Name: Julio

The seller has posted photos of a gleaming cherry-red Plymouth with red-and-black leather seats. Asked if he'd consider sending the car to Miami, he doesn't react well.

"I'm selling it for 5,000 pesos. Miami? No! It's impossible to sell it to you in Miami! I don't know how to make that work. Call the authorities, idiot." Click.


Cuba's Wired Future

When Jose and Juan moved their messy email lists onto the web, they began with a few hundred posts. On an average day, one or two dozen new ads would appear.

A year and a half later, the site's explosive growth has stunned its founders. Revolico nets more than 2 million page views a month, according to Jose — 90 percent from inside Cuba. More than 50,000 new ads appear each month, which means around 2,000 Cubans post every day.

"We can't believe it," Jose says. "It's not something we could have imagined being possible."

The site's exponential growth mirrors the breakneck pace — at least by Cuban standards — of growing Internet access. Last year, after decades of living behind a virtual Iron Firewall, Cubans with enough money could legally buy personal computers thanks to Raúl Castro's decree. Just this month, Raúl allowed post offices around the country to build Internet kiosks where ordinary people can check email and surf a handful of approved sites.

The government tightly regulates the IP addresses of sites allowed on state web access and has established hefty punishments for violators. Under Article 91 of the criminal code, Cubans can get slammed with 20 years in jail for posting "counter-revolutionary" works online, according to a report this year by Reporters Without Borders. Getting caught on a black-market Internet hookup can carry a five-year term, according to the study.

But still, as access spreads, a few free-speech pioneers have used the web to talk openly about their country. Young bloggers such as Yoanni Sanchez — who writes a blog called Generación Y, a play on the popularity of Cuban first names beginning with the penultimate letter of the alphabet — criticize the government and write freely about about problems in Havana.

"There is a window beginning to crack open," says Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "But you have to remember that Yoanni and others are blocked in Cuba. We're reading what they're writing, but most Cubans can't."

So, will Revolico cause real change?

Many doubt it. Several experts questioned the backstory the site's founder gave New Times. Jose was contacted through an email sent to the site's administrator.

Some say he's working directly for the regime, testing a small free-market reform for the government. "The Cuban government has always been very good at alleviating some of the people's needs without fundamentally changing the communist system," says Antonio Jorge, a Cuban finance vice minister who broke with the Castros and now is a professor emeritus at Florida International University.

Others say Jose, even if he lacks official permission, is likely bribing government censors.

"Someone in the Cuban government must have OK'd this site, because there's no way it's flying under the radar," says Sebastian Arcos, a former Cuban political prisoner now in charge of community outreach in FIU's Department of International Studies. "The question is: What are his connections exactly?"

Jose denies any government link. The regime, he says, has nothing to fear from a long-standing black market moving online. "There's no way this would last if there was a political slant to it," he says. "There's nothing political about Revolico."

The pair moved to Spain last year, just a few months after Revolico went live. Jose speaks to New Times from a cell phone with a Spanish area code.

They moved mostly for jobs, he says, declining to name what Spanish city he's speaking from. Revolico brings in only a few hundred dollars a month with Google ads, he explains, so the founders have to keep working.

Jose says he has already received offers to buy the site, but most have come from Americans who want to use Revolico as a political tool against Castro.

That's not Jose's dream. His biggest hope is that when the United States and Cuba normalize relations, the site will become a sensation. In the free-for-all certain to come, the most-visited online trading site on the island could be worth some serious cash. In fact, the two partners say they're working on a new site that will equally test their homeland's boundaries. Jose won't talk about the project except to promise it will "help Cuba emerge in the Internet age."

"When I left, I heard so many people say that Castro has made Cubans lose their entrepreneurial spirit. But it's not true," he says. "We're more entrepreneurial than anyone else on Earth because we must be to survive."

Published on September 29, 2009 at 11:25am
Miami News - Cuba's black market moves online with - page 1 (30 September 2009)

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