In Cuba, the search for basic goods such as nails or toilet paper can mean queueing for several hours at a store. To avoid the wait, many Cubans are joining WhatsApp and Telegram chat groups that alert them where they can find products or find someone looking to barter goods.
“Does anyone know where yoghurt’s available?” a woman asks a chat group. At the moment, no one can help – but someone has discovered cement and tiles at a store in the Cuban capital, Havanna. “Hurry though, the queue outside is already really long.”
“Who wants to trade toilet paper for shampoo?” someone else asks.
Cuba’s chronic shortages are worse than ever due to the coronavirus pandemic. Shops lack food, groceries and everyday items. And if they do get a delivery, residents start queueing up outside right away.
Standing in queues and waiting is part of everyday life in Cuba, now more than ever. But as more and more people gain access to the Internet, they are increasingly trying to get hold of goods and find bargains online, supplementing the island nation’s planned economy.
They join chat groups on messaging apps such as WhatsApp or Telegram to find out where what goods may be available, organise exchanges or offer to sell items that people are trying to get their hands on.
“Tomorrow there’ll be cleaning fluid at the Danubio store, people are already lining up, ” one woman wrote in a Telegram group called Donde hay? (Where is that?). The chat group, whose description reads “share what you find and help others, ” counts more than 7,800 members.
Mobile Internet has been available in Cuba since late 2018, and more than four million Cubans now have access, according to Granma, a party newspaper. Surfing the web is expensive, though, with rates ranging from US$5 (RM21) for 400MB to US$20 (RM82.50) for 2.5GB.
The average wage in Cuba is just US$35 (RM144) per month.
Nonetheless, chat groups such as Mercadillo Habanero (which translates to Small Havana Market) or Lo que quieran (What you want) are becoming increasingly popular among Cubans and foreigners alike.
Above all, such groups help save time. People often spend hours lining up outside stores only to find out once they get in that the produce they’re waiting for has sold out. They can organise their errands more efficiently, thanks to the messenger app services.
“I’m looking for a kilo of coffee. I’ll exchange it for five litres of milk, ” one person writes in a chat group. “I need rubbish bags – exchange them for beer, ” another user writes.
“We’ve returned to the original form of trading, ” says Claudia Santander, who manages several chat groups. “Users say what they’re looking for and what they can offer, and then they negotiate the transaction – without any money being involved, ” she explains.
At first, Santander only exchanged information with her girlfriends about where to buy items. Then she founded five chat groups, each with 240 members.
The coronavirus pandemic has hit Cuba hard, bringing tourism – the second-most important source of foreign currency, after sending doctors and nurses abroad – to a complete standstill. That means the government in Havana has less financial means to import goods.
The renewed tightening of US sanctions and the economic crisis in allied Venezuela have made the situation even worse.
But some are finding business opportunities in the resulting shortages. State-subsidised products disappear from stores, then reappear for twice or three times the price on the black market.
Police are now pursuing those involved in such activities, according to media reports, even though there is little coverage of crime in Cuba’s state-run press.
“The authorities warned me of illegal activity and that the origin of goods was unclear and that prices are excessively high, ” writes the administrator of a chat group on Telegram. “They advised me to close the group, but in the end they didn’t force me to.”
The group’s members are still busy bartering away, trading diapers for onions, dishwasher fluid for coffee and milk for screws. – dpa/Guillermo Nova