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Cuba’s true, capitalist spirit can be found in its charming version of Craigslist

Scott Norvell
By Scott Norvell

Curator-in-chief, CubaNotes.com

If anyone still harbors any doubt that the Cubans are intrinsically capitalistic, they need look no further than Revolico.com. The website (revolico is Cuban slang for “a mess”) is communist Cuba’s version of Craigslist, and it has been bedeviling the island’s autocratic leaders for years.

While black markets have always existed in Cuba, Revolico takes the concept to a whole new level.

Founded by a couple of anonymous programmers in Havana, it emerged from an email list that circulated among geeks on the island in the early 2000s, advertising the sale and trade of second-hand computer parts and supplies. As the list grew and spread among family and friends of the developers, however, the variety of items for sale or trade grew beyond electronics. In 2007, the founders threw open the floodgates, and the current iteration of Revolico.com was born.

Everything from sushi-to-go to million-dollar beach houses is currently available on the site. Jobs and services are found and offered. Cars and parts are traded. Classes are offered and disposable lighters are refilled. The site has become so popular that an offline version of it is now bundled with the weekly paquete of pirated movies, films, music and illicit news that circulates on the island via CD and flash drive.

Needless to say, the Cuban government hates it. Authorities have gone so far as to revoke the internet access privileges of doctors who made the mistake of using their own email addresses to publish or respond to ads. No amount of blacklisting, however, can keep a good capitalist down. To that end, the site’s admins recently added an email anonymizer, much like what Craigslist offers, to prevent authorities from tracking down and punishing people whose only goal is to secure an Atari 5200 game console or sell the heirloom necktie supposedly signed by Salvador Dalí.

Revolico/Scott Norvell

Even more so than its counterparts elsewhere in the world, Revolico is a window into modern Cuba. (Especially for Americans, who have long been discouraged by Washington politicians from traveling there.) On Revolico, we learn of Cubans’ wants and desires, and of the lengths they will go (dollar-wise, at least) to acquire such items. We learn of the skills they have, and the skills they want. We learn of a people’s life priorities beyond mere necessities. The buying and selling of goods and services in the open bares a society’s soul like nothing else.

A peek at what people are looking for sheds light on what Cubans covet these days. Game consoles (colloquially known as “Ataris”) are hot, as are Android phones. Sorry Tim Cook, Apple isn’t winning the smartphone wars in Cuba: Androids of all stripes easily outnumber Apple products ten-to-one. And if supply is indicative of demand, Cubans seem obsessed with being healthy. The “Gyms/Massage/Trainer” section of the services block is given over almost entirely to people selling vitamins and vitamin supplements. Maybe the meager offerings in the state stores require supplementation.

Automobiles, meanwhile, seem obscenely overpriced unless one considers that a new car, in a state-owned Cuba showroom, can cost the equivalent of $250,000. In this context, a used Lada being offered for $15,000 doesn’t seem quite so strange. (All prices are in convertible pesos, commonly known as CUCs, which trade at parity to the US dollar.) One arches the eyebrows a little less, similarly, when we see five-year-old Toyota Corollas and Hyundai Elentras with 100,000 kilometers going for $70,000. Although, $150,000 for a five-year-old diesel Toyota 4Runner seems a little over the top.

Revolico/Scott Norvell

Housing is another big category, with prices all over the map. An 80-square-meter apartment in Vedado, built in 1950 with a telephone and two bedrooms, is going for $35,000. One budding real estate entrepreneur wants $600,000 for 2000+ square meters of waterfront land near the Marina Hemingway “perfect for building several houses and a dock for a yacht.” No pessimism there. And just what does it say about socialist construction when an apartment is touted as being of “modern capitalist construction?”

Jobs in Cuba don’t appear to be as plentiful in number as Cubans looking for them, but they are there nonetheless. Italian chefs are in demand. Drivers can earn $25 a day ferrying tourists around (the monthly salary of a doctor in Cuba is the equivalent of about $70.) Construction workers should have no problem finding work, nor should programmers or repairmen.  There are private detectives hawking their services, mariachi bands (even an all-female one),  and hairdressers who do house calls.

The lengths to which Cubans have gone to circumvent official controls on the media and entertainment are glaring in the category Films/TV Series/Videos. The aforementioned paquete is ubiquitous. One vendor promises all that Hollywood has to offer under one roof—200 terabytes of everything from the Walking Dead to Game of Thrones to Whiplash. They also deliver. The full weekly paquete of new material sells for $3. One-off films sell for as little as 15 cents. Cuba has already lost the culture wars.

Revolico/Scott Norvell

Overall, the nation’s obsession with all things internet is a major theme across Revolico. People will build websites for you, fix your broken Windows Vista laptop or sell offline versions of Wikipedia or Rosetta Stone. Satellite television service, which is illegal for ordinary Cubans, can be obtained for $40 a month. And the market for legitimate software (almost everything available now is pirated) looks to be huge when and if Congress sees fit to lift the ineffective embargo. Maybe Silicon Valley’s new army of lobbyists in Washington will make themselves useful here.

There is, of course, a seedier side. Not as crazy as some of the stuff that shows up on Craigslist, but murky enough, from dodgy requests for webcam girls, or 20- to 30-year-old female traveling companions, to gay escorts. Interestingly, Revolico does not have the sort of personals sections that have become so infamous with its American cousin.

It all goes a long way toward dispelling the myth that ordinary Cubans are in lockstep with their communist leaders. Lurking beneath the raised fists and red, white and blue bandanas of the protests that make the nightly news are ordinary folks just trying to get by, capitalists who yearn only for a 40-inch Sony HD television or a new pair of Levis flip-flops.

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