By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Subject: American car, '55 Plymouth
Date: August 23, 2009
American '55 Plymouth in mint condition. The motor and upholstery are good. I've put photos here for you to check it out. My telephone is 05** for Julio, or 765*** for my neighbor Silvia, or 765*** for my other neighbor, Maria. I want 5,000 pesos [$5,300] for the car. But the price is negotiable.
The seller has posted photos of a gleaming cherry-red Plymouth with red-and-black leather seats. Asked if he'd consider sending the car to Miami, he doesn't react well.
"I'm selling it for 5,000 pesos. Miami? No! It's impossible to sell it to you in Miami! I don't know how to make that work. Call the authorities, idiot." Click.
Cuba's Wired Future
When Jose and Juan moved their messy email lists onto the web, they began with a few hundred posts. On an average day, one or two dozen new ads would appear.
A year and a half later, the site's explosive growth has stunned its founders. Revolico nets more than 2 million page views a month, according to Jose — 90 percent from inside Cuba. More than 50,000 new ads appear each month, which means around 2,000 Cubans post every day.
"We can't believe it," Jose says. "It's not something we could have imagined being possible."
The site's exponential growth mirrors the breakneck pace — at least by Cuban standards — of growing Internet access. Last year, after decades of living behind a virtual Iron Firewall, Cubans with enough money could legally buy personal computers thanks to Raúl Castro's decree. Just this month, Raúl allowed post offices around the country to build Internet kiosks where ordinary people can check email and surf a handful of approved sites.
The government tightly regulates the IP addresses of sites allowed on state web access and has established hefty punishments for violators. Under Article 91 of the criminal code, Cubans can get slammed with 20 years in jail for posting "counter-revolutionary" works online, according to a report this year by Reporters Without Borders. Getting caught on a black-market Internet hookup can carry a five-year term, according to the study.
But still, as access spreads, a few free-speech pioneers have used the web to talk openly about their country. Young bloggers such as Yoanni Sanchez — who writes a blog called Generación Y, a play on the popularity of Cuban first names beginning with the penultimate letter of the alphabet — criticize the government and write freely about about problems in Havana.
"There is a window beginning to crack open," says Andy Gomez, a senior fellow at the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies. "But you have to remember that Yoanni and others are blocked in Cuba. We're reading what they're writing, but most Cubans can't."
So, will Revolico cause real change?
Many doubt it. Several experts questioned the backstory the site's founder gave New Times. Jose was contacted through an email sent to the site's administrator.
Some say he's working directly for the regime, testing a small free-market reform for the government. "The Cuban government has always been very good at alleviating some of the people's needs without fundamentally changing the communist system," says Antonio Jorge, a Cuban finance vice minister who broke with the Castros and now is a professor emeritus at Florida International University.
Others say Jose, even if he lacks official permission, is likely bribing government censors.
"Someone in the Cuban government must have OK'd this site, because there's no way it's flying under the radar," says Sebastian Arcos, a former Cuban political prisoner now in charge of community outreach in FIU's Department of International Studies. "The question is: What are his connections exactly?"
Jose denies any government link. The regime, he says, has nothing to fear from a long-standing black market moving online. "There's no way this would last if there was a political slant to it," he says. "There's nothing political about Revolico."
The pair moved to Spain last year, just a few months after Revolico went live. Jose speaks to New Times from a cell phone with a Spanish area code.
They moved mostly for jobs, he says, declining to name what Spanish city he's speaking from. Revolico brings in only a few hundred dollars a month with Google ads, he explains, so the founders have to keep working.
Jose says he has already received offers to buy the site, but most have come from Americans who want to use Revolico as a political tool against Castro.
That's not Jose's dream. His biggest hope is that when the United States and Cuba normalize relations, the site will become a sensation. In the free-for-all certain to come, the most-visited online trading site on the island could be worth some serious cash. In fact, the two partners say they're working on a new site that will equally test their homeland's boundaries. Jose won't talk about the project except to promise it will "help Cuba emerge in the Internet age."
"When I left, I heard so many people say that Castro has made Cubans lose their entrepreneurial spirit. But it's not true," he says. "We're more entrepreneurial than anyone else on Earth because we must be to survive."