In Santa Clara Online Private Sales Triumph

In Santa Clara, lines are now longer than usual, partly because of those who buy to resell in the informal market. (Laura Rodríguez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Laura Rodríguez Fuentes, Santa Clara, 31 May 2020 — José Daniel is not called that, but he liked that pseudonym to create a fictitious profile on Facebook and on the messaging platforms that he uses to sell home products whose marketing has been banned by the Government since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

At about thirty years of age, José Daniel travels on a rustic bicycle that has a plastic box on the back, where he keeps the merchandise that has been previously ordered via the App Messenger. Very cautiously, he covers them with a cloth and places a black jacket on top of that, which might mislead the police if they arrest him. Being careful, he makes only one delivery a day.

In early April, the Government ordered that the sale of food and hygiene products would happen onl in state stores and in the hard currency businesses controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces. continue reading

Purchase caps were established: two units of each merchandise per person. The distribution of some food and hygiene items was suspended and physical markets closed, where previously it was traditionally tolerated to allow individuals to sell the products they brought back from trips abroad.

The government said the measures are intended to prevent the hoarding of basic necessities due to the emergency stemming from the Covid-19, but critics say the measure is intended to let hard currency to enter Cuba’s decimated economy.

In the center of Santa Clara, the Cimex network store called Praga, has been out of stock since the start of the pandemic. (Laura Rodríguez)

The result of these measures in Santa Clara was a growth of fifty percent or more in the informal market, according to calculations that take into account the number of merchants and products.

Now, the informal market uses the social network Facebook to offer goods, and messaging platforms such as Telegram or WhatsApp to finalize sales of products that the government regulates: chicken, pork, toothpaste, clothing, light bulbs and others.

José Daniel, like other merchants in this digital black market, asks that his identity not be revealed because he risks a prison sentence of between three months and one year, as established by the Penal Code. He says that less than a month ago a friend of his was taken to one of the Santa Clara police units for carrying a bag with several pounds of ham.

Since the government announced the regulation of the market, the official media have shown the arrests of alleged hoarders on TV. But these public Facebook pages have not been touched, perhaps so as not to give a further twist to the shortages that the country is experiencing and that affects ordinary Cubans.

José Daniel also says that he studied pedagogy, and that under his same pseudonym hundreds of merchants operate. Others use names like Verónica but they are men, or they choose the identities of famous people in Cuba like Becky G, a reggaeton singer.

“The profile is common (several use it) and the requests are reviewed (taken) by whoever has mobile data at the time,” he said. “Every day, we receive about ten or twelve orders, at all hours, according to the offers we publish.”

The products marketed by him and “his people,” as he calls those who are part of his network of colleagues — i.e. illegal resellers — are obtained in the same way as ordinary people do: by waiting in long lines at the stores of the Cimex chains and TRD Caribe.

“We always go with more than five or six together, or sometimes we talk to our family members so that they can help us purchase more, but we don’t take them in large quantities either,” says José Daniel, who does not consider himself a hoarder and does not like the government’s use of this term.

For him, a hoarder is one who takes advantage of scarcity or keeps staples for the wholesale market. He says he buys goods that sell quickly in this clandestine market, including the most demanded and rationed such as oil or chicken.

Unlike the state ’online’ stores, which have generated criticism, the black market sells and offers home delivery. (Laura Rodríguez)

When the pandemic broke out, Cimex and the Caribe expanded the e-commerce services of the online sales platform with the idea that people would stay home and not be exposed to Covid-19 while lining up to buy basic products.

However, very few were able to access the platform the day it launched with new services because it collapsed. Those who managed to register and make purchases got the wrong products or did not get them at all.

Authorities closed the platform until pending purchases were addressed. On the other hand, the Santa Clara black market never had this problem.

For almost a year, when two groups were created on Facebook, Telegram and WhatsApp called La Candonga de Santa Clara and Revolico Ventas Santa Clara, everything has worked smoothly. In them you can find everything that is scarce in state stores but at exorbitant prices.

Although an important part of what is for sale on these platforms has been purchased in state stores, and therefore reselling it is illegal, its existence is not a secret to anyone. Both groups are public on Facebook.

In order not to have problems with the authorities, the administrators of these portals do not accept publications from users related to the island’s politics or situation that go “against morals.” Those who defy such prohibitions are immediately eliminated.

In Santa Clara, where about 220,000 inhabitants live, the site La Candonga has more than 34,000 members while Revolico has 45,000, each representing a family, which means that the majority of the population of that city uses one or both these two platforms.

Sellers include photos of the products they trade. Sometimes they indicate the price or ask for offers by Messenger, WhatsApp or Telegram.

Like Facebook, Messenger is the messaging platform most used by Cubans and is ideal for informal market transactions because it does not require giving a phone number that the authorities can later track.

Most merchants, in their false profiles, charge a supplement for home delivery.

Since the government decreed restrictions on the sale of products, traffic on the sites La Candonga and Revolico has exploded.

According to official information from Facebook, in the last eight weeks about 14,000 new members have joined the La Candonga group. On the page approximately 935 daily ads are posted by different users who buy or sell merchandise.

The Revolico site was joined by some 32,000 new members in the last 28 days, according to the same source, and has 548 ads.

These groups have become the only way to get items that are basic or hard-to-find at hard currency stores, such as toothpaste, in addition to chicken or ground meat in amounts higher than officially allowed.

The site La Candonga offers everything from light bulbs, stoves, paint, clothing and shoes, to cheese, ham, eggs and sex toys, the importation of which is prohibited.

Many, however, protest the high prices of the items, which sell for up to four times more than the original value. A tube of toothpaste, which normally costs 1.10 CUC, reaches more than 6 CUC. A bottle of oil, whose original price is 2 CUC, can end up costing 4 or 5 CUC.

“The resale of so many products from the stores on these pages is an abuse,” says a user of the La Candonga page. “Total lack of respect. If what is resold had remained in stores, someone would have bought it at a normal price. If the government does not comply, we should help each other and not massacre each other.”

Others defend the page because they prefer to pay for products at any price in order to avoid the lines and avoid contagion.

“I would rather have it brought to me than have to stumble from store to store,” says Ariannys Lemus, a mother and housewife from Santa Clara. “Hopefully this is not shut down because then we are going to embark. I prefer to pay anything for a pound of cheese that is nowhere to be found.”

The success of the virtual site La Candonga in Santa Clara is due, in part, to the closing down of the commercial area that bears the same name and was closed in April by the authorities to control the epidemic, since it is located in the city’s hospital area.

Hundreds of self-employed people gathered in La Candonga — a word brought to Cuba by the Angolan war soldiers in the 1970s and 1980s to designate a trade area — and were dedicated to selling products imported from Panama or Guyana by individuals such as the doctors returning from missions in other countries. Although this activity was not exactly illegal, it was not totally legal either. It was tolerated.

It is those same “candongueros” who created the virtual platforms.

Those same “candongueros” switched to virtual platforms and thus joined a totally illegal market, in which the operate as resellers of products taken from state hard currency stores.

Overnight, Facebook groups became their only means of selling the products they had invested thousands of dollars in, between trips abroad and wholesale purchases.

Yanet González traveled to Mexico twice earlier this year. From there she was able to bring more than 50 kilos of merchandise. “When they closed the area, I had to start selling what I had bought through the networks because I had to get the money back,” says the thirty-year-old. “I have managed to sell some, but I am a little afraid to post other items that I’ve been told may not be sold, such as personal hygiene products, for example.”

As in other times of crisis or scarcity, the Government has made efforts to transmit an image of toughness against hoarding and the black market.

In recent weeks, it has organized raids and confiscated several warehouses of illegal products, discovered by complaints from neighbors or anonymous calls.

In addition, the television newscast has issued reports, almost daily, of seizures made in various provinces. They have exposed the faces of the accused to the cameras, whom they label as “embezzlers” or “hoarders” in the midst of a pandemic.

In the province of Villa Clara, for example, on May 13 the police raided the illegal warehouse of a citizen who had in his possession more than 400 boxes of juice, 120 liters of oil, more than 1,000 packages of jams and 538 bottles of rum.

Many of the black market products seized in recent weeks were pulled out of currency stores through hoarder networks. (Laura Rodríguez)

The products came from the state’s own establishments and hard currency stores. In other raids, the official media have reported the arrest of several carriers who allegedly diverted oxygen cylinders or stored large bales of onions in the province of Mayabeque.

However, these operations have only touched the tip of the iceberg of a purchase and sale system whose operation enjoys good health.

So far, two fundamental links in this business have not been affected. The social network sites where the articles are usually advertised have not been the target of the authorities. Nor are the administrators or clerks of the hard currency stores, who frequently collaborate with the so-called hoarders in exchange for bribes.

José Daniel and his work colleagues suspect that the Government, despite its rhetoric, has decided to “turn a blind eye” to virtual reselling. “They don’t want to tighten the rope too much so that people don’t suffocate.”Just in case, he takes his precautions. “I take care of myself, I do not want to appear on the newscast.”


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.

Two Lines in Santa Clara, One to Collect Remittances and the Other to Spend Them

Residents of Santa Clara wait in line at the Banco Popular to deposit money from bank cards so they can purchase goods through the digital platform tuenví (Laura Rodríguez Fuentes)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Santa Clara, Laura Rodríguez Fuentes, May 18, 2020 — Though its residents are still under lockdown, two long lines form every morning in the center of Santa Clara. One is for the Western Union office, where remittances are received. The other is for the Praga store, part of the Cimex chain, which is run by the Cuban armed forces and where cash exchanged for convertible pesos (CUCs) is spent.

These days the line for Western Union is so long that, to be one of the first customers, a person has to get there at dawn.

Maria de la Caridad Cueto, who is among those most vulnerable to the coronavirus due to her diabetes, must leave home to collect the money her nephew sends her in order to feed herself. continue reading

She has twice been to the company’s Santa Clara branch without being able to collect the 120 CUC he has sent from Miami due to the number of people in line ahead of her trying to do the same thing.

“He works very hard over there and I have never asked him for anything but this time I had to accept it,” says Cueto as she stands alongside thirty other people waiting to get into the office.

“The first time I came, I waited for two hours before they told us the connection was down. I came again yesterday but I was sorry I did because there were too many people. I am diabetic and can’t go too long without eating something or drinking some water,” she laments.

Maribel Santana, a 35-year-old cook who lost her job at a restaurant due to the pandemic, did manage to collect the money from her wire transfer, but she was not as lucky in the line to the Praga store.

She got her 75 CUC but returned home with the full amount. “I went to the Praga store but there was nothing in the freezers,” she says. “Only cans of peaches and some really expensive items that are of no use and would never be considered part of a meal. Trinkets, just trinkets, and only the most expensive kind,” she protests.

Santana was a cook for several privately owned restaurants in the city but was laid off after the restaurant where she worked closed. She was left without any savings after paying to remodel and expand one of the bedrooms in her house so her 11-year-old daughter would have more privacy.

As luck would have it, I got help from overseas, but money is paper and you can’t eat paper,” says Santana. “Cubans have always known hunger and are afraid the refrigerator will be empty, as happened during the Special Period. Whatever savings I have now will go to buy bread flour to make and sell croquettes in my neighborhood in order to survive.”

Among the reasons for widespread shortages in hard-currency stores such as Cimex, Praga and TRD Caribe is the growth in hoarding and reselling.

By eight o’clock in the morning more than twenty people have formed a line in front of the Cimex store on the road between Santa Clara and Sagua.

They all know each other. They are members of a profession practiced in Cuba in times of extreme crisis or during hurricane season. Known as coleras,* they are mostly women who once sold imported clothing and food at private picnic sites.

The leader of the group, a young woman in her late twenties, carries a notepad in which she marks down the names of those in line and and hands a slip of paper to each person, indicating his or her “order of arrival.”

A store clerk comes outside to explain to the crowd that nothing has come in yet: “No oil, no chicken, no tomato puree, no soap.” She yells at them to disperse and threatens to call the police, who have not been there for hours.

The young woman in charge of the line is engaging in an illegal activity that could cost her a 3,000 peso fine or even jail time. But she seems not to be worried about the police.

She is unemployed and now organizes lines outside local marketplaces in her area. Though she does not agree to a taped interview, or to give her name, she is willing to explain how her “business” operates.

She says that when a delivery truck is on its way to a Cimex or TRD Caribe, the coleras alert their contacts and friends so that they and several of their family members can go to the store and get in line.

Because of the exodus of young people to other provinces or countries in search of better opportunities, Santa Clara is the province with the most senior citizens, who must take to the streets every day in search of food. (Laura Rodriguez Fuentes)

The most popular products are usually cooking oil, detergent and packages of frozen chicken.

“People’s places in line are allotted the day before, depending on the product, because that’s when you always find out what’s scheduled to arrive the next day,” says the woman. “Even if you only see a single person in line, there are always five more behind her because we assign our people their places in line.”

Most of those with the lowest numbers are involved in the hoarding or resale trade. They even advertise on social media and offer home delivery at very high prices.

To protect their identity, many resort to fake Facebook profiles. After taking orders from trusted customers, they deliver the merchandise to homes in Santa Clara. Generally, they ask that orders be placed through Messenger and do not often post their phone number.

In case a group member cannot be there on a given day, or one of her friends fails to show up on time, her place in line can be sold to someone who is not part of the so-called colera syndicate.

According to another woman who also wanted to remain anonymous, being female is an advantage because it makes them less vulnerable to the police.

“No policeman wants to get in the middle of this because if they physically attack us, it’s going to be bad news for them,” explains one colera, who feels protected by the group. If there is police violence, those present can film it and take photos as evidence in a legal challenge.

On several occasions President Miguel Díaz-Canel has called upon authorities to take serious action to curtail the illegal resale of merchandise. “These are people who are making the situation more complicated for us,” he says.

But other than filing charges or making a few well-publicized arrests, authorities do not routinely take significant steps to discourage resellers.

Under market regulation the only ways to get food without restrictions has been to buy from street vendors or to shop at “Hard Currency Recovery Stores” (TRD for the initials in Spanish), which only accept hard currency, such as Cimex and Caribe.

But after April they stopped selling merchandise that did not fall under the categories of groceries, cleaning products and items for newborns and toddlers such as diapers and feeding bottles.

In Santa Clara, the shop windows of these stores only display packaged or canned goods such as mayonnaise, olives, and fruit preserves.

None of these products solves the current dilemma of putting a traditional Cuban meal of rice, beans and some kind of meat on the table. Prices are also exorbitantly high for anyone earning the average Cuban monthly salary. A can of tuna costs 75 Cuban pesos (three dollars), a kilo of ham is six CUC (Cuban convertible pesos, roughly $6 US) and an egg goes for 45 cents in CUCs.

A recent document published by the Spanish Economic and Commercial Office in Cuba calculates that Cimex and Caribe stores operate on “retail markups of 180% to 240% of the cost of the product, a level of consumer prices well above those in Spain.”

These retail markups, imposed by the Ministry of Finance and Prices, have a very clear objective: they allow the State to “recover” the hard currency Cubans receive from their relatives abroad.

*Translator’s note: The term can be roughly translated as “women in line.”


COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORK: The 14ymedio team is committed to practicing serious journalism that reflects Cuba’s reality in all its depth. Thank you for joining us on this long journey. We invite you to continue supporting us by becoming a member of 14ymedio now. Together we can continue transforming journalism in Cuba.