HAVANA — On one block on the outskirts of the Cuban capital, a mother of two goes door to door selling hair ribbons and other sundries to her neighbors. An old man sells cookies and candies to those who ring the bell at his dilapidated home. A grandmother fills up empty beer cans with low-budget rum, which she sells in the evenings to help make ends meet.
Such entrepreneurship is outlawed but thrives nonetheless, and right under the noses of the block captains who are supposed to report such transgressions to the Communist Party chain of command.
These are tough economic times in Cuba, and while the black market has always bustled here it seems particularly intense these days, with enterprising Cubans in a constant search for compatriots who have money to spend.
There are no classified advertisements in the Communist Party newspaper Granma or the other state-run publications that circulate in Cuba. Rather, sales are made through Radio Bemba, which is not a radio station at all but the country’s extensive gossip network, which takes its name from the Spanish word for lip.
Two Cubans in their 20s who left the island for Spain have created a way to make all this secretive selling easier. It is a type of Cuban Craigslist, which allows the small but growing number of Cubans with access to computers and the Internet to buy and sell with less sneaking around.
But the authorities, despite loosening restrictions recently on the sale of computers, have repeatedly blocked access to their Web site, Revolico, which takes its name from a Cuban word for commotion. One of the programmers who created the site (www.revolico.com) said in an e-mail message that he and the co-founder were in a constant scramble to get their site past government censors.
“We chose the name to make an allusion to the disorder that we are trying to organize,” said the programmer, who spoke on condition of anonymity so that his relatives still on the island would not encounter problems with the Cuban authorities.
Although he said that Craigslist was the inspiration for Revolico, the Cuban site is designed to upload more quickly on the island’s sluggish connection speeds. And although some of the categories on the site — cars for sale, computers for sale, boys seeking girls, boys seeking boys, for instance — are identical to those on Craigslist, there are many particularly Cuban exchanges.
Take the person selling his place in the visa line at the Spanish Embassy to someone trying to get off the island. Or the arranged marriages that are offered to help Cubans find a way to another country.
Or all the classic cars, like a 1950 Dodge, a 1956 Chevy or a 1954 Buick, all still running after having been cobbled together with makeshift parts for more than half a century.
There is clearly a market for the site, as viewership both on and off the island has steadily climbed and banner advertising, priced in euros, brings in modest sums. The site, which went online in December 2007, is currently accessible outside Cuba as well as to Cubans who use special software to get around the blockage. In January 2008, there were 336,595 page views. That increased to 1,331,161 by January 2009. By August 2009, Revolico said its viewership exceeded 2 million hits monthly.
The offerings on this online bazaar run the gamut, although it is impossible to tell which sellers are legitimate, which are scam artists and which might even be government agents setting a trap. A recent posting offered illegal satellite dishes, which the authorities occasionally seize from rooftops to prevent outlawed foreign broadcasts from finding their ways into Cuban homes. Also for sale were English classes, old typewriters, sex toys, purebred dogs and tooth whitening chemicals. People with permission to travel were sought out to buy clothing, electronics and other goods to bring them back in their luggage.
The founder said he had heard of Cubans practically making a living by buying and selling items from Revolico. A regular customer said he bought Windows 7 from the site for about $5. After calling the number in the Revolico advertisement, a young man showed up at his front door and installed the pirated software on his home computer.
The founder said, “In Revolico, one sees Cuba exposed, the daily lives of the Cubans, things that say much about the Cuba of today.”