HAVANA — On this Communist-run island, the black market is a vast, irrepressible force, an underground river of unlicensed services, goods pilfered from government stores and coveted items carried in from abroad. Cuban authorities go to great lengths to curtail it; they cannot.
Over the years, buying and selling en la calle — in the street — has been practiced by generations of Cubans forced to make ends meet in a state-controlled economy where official wages are woefully inadequate and most forms of private commerce are banned.
But Cuba’s informal economy is an imperfect marketplace. Without advertising, it relies heavily on word-of-mouth, and its commercial activity tends to flourish in small circles — among neighbors, coworkers and other trusted acquaintances.
Then came Revolico.com. Its name essentially translates as “disarray,” and while Havana residents jokingly call it “the Cuban eBay,” the site is really closer to Craigslist. For Cubans who make a living through the black market, it's a godsend.
Like its American cousin, Revolico is a free classified service that functions as a digital bazaar for a broad range of goods and services, with headings like Housing, For Sale and Classes. If you have internet access, and you’re looking for a golden retriever, a cheap housecleaner or the latest episodes of the HBO series "True Blood," then Revolico is your place.
Many of the ads on the site propose transactions that are perfectly legal in Cuba — or at least tolerated by authorities. One user posted a recent ad offering to rent rooms in his Havana home for $30 a night, emphasizing that he was fully licensed. Another ad offered $12 men’s razors — “GUILLETT (sic) MACH 3 TURBO” — from a vendor who clearly wasn’t authorized to sell them but probably wouldn’t attract police, either.
Of course, Revolico is also a clearinghouse for more serious illegal activities, including several that could lead to arrest and harsh punishment in this country — or in the United States.
“If you want to make a deal to leave the island, send me an email with your contact information,” wrote one user claiming to be a 24-year-old Cuban American woman traveling to the island with the intention of setting up a fraudulent marriage. “Half the money when we start the process, half the money at the end,” she wrote. “Price is negotiable.”
Several other postings were also targeted at Cubans looking to leave the island, mostly through fake marriages, while others sought travelers who could procure specific items abroad for resale on the black market — clothes, electronics and other goods. Satellite receivers linked to Direct TV or Dish Network accounts in the U.S. also appear to be in high demand on the site.
But the most popular category is computers and computer equipment. Some venders seemed to be operating a virtual RadioShack on the site, with a diverse stock of flash memory, hard drives and modem equipment, luring potential customers with promises of “home delivery.”
Internet access in Cuba is achingly slow and tightly restricted, but several postings advertised illegal dial-up accounts providing web access for about $1 an hour. One listing offered high-speed satellite internet installation for a whopping $6,000 — a fortune here — and suggested it could be used to start a business as a black-market Internet Service Provider (ISP). The posting drew several expletive-laced denunciations from the site’s other users — not because the service would be illegal but because the asking price was so steep.
As with Craigslist in the U.S., Revolico’s personals listings are a draw for lonely hearts and hookers alike. Many of the “casual encounters” postings appear to be created by foreign men looking to arrange for female company during upcoming trips to the island. Other ads offered anatomical paraphernalia and other sex toys not sold in Cuban government stores.
But perhaps the most surreal pages on the site are the auto listings. Because of title-transfer restrictions, only vehicles built before 1960 can be freely bought and sold in Cuba, so Revolico’s car section is a time-warped catalogue of classic vehicles in various states of preservation.
“53’ Chevrolet for sale in perfect condition, second owner, upholstery in very good condition … everything on the dashboard works,” wrote one seller who added photos of his sturdy black-and-white sedan. Another vehicle owner said he was looking to trade his 1948 Oldsmobile “for a smaller model.”
Interview requests to Revolico’s administrators went unanswered, but the site claims to be among the top three most-visited web sites in Cuba, with 1.5 million page views per month and 100,000 classified listings created in the past 60 days. If accurate, those would be impressive figures in a country that ranks toward the bottom for web access among Latin American countries, according to United Nations data.
While the classified listing are free, the site sells advertising space (in euros) for banner ads and other high-visibility spaces. There’s no indication where Revolico is based, but since it lacks Cuba’s .cu domain extension, the site is clearly not hosted by any servers on the island. According to its mission statement, it claims to work by “collective intelligence” and a spirit of “cooperation” that asks users to refrain from political discussions or postings. There are also no ads for drugs, gambling or other more serious criminal enterprises.
Still, vendors on the site are generally skittish about undercover police and it may only be a matter of time before authorities decide to block access on the island. If that happens, other Cuban classified sites like dicuba.com and cu.clasificados.st — which now receive far less traffic — will surely fill the void.
More GlobalPost dispatches from Cuba:
Where Detroit still reigns
The future of Cuba
A remnant of the Cold War