Cuba's black market moves online with Revolico.com

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.

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.

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 revolico.com 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."

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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.

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