Electronic Commerce in Cuba, Another Gordian Knot

Photo: Cubadebate

Cubanet, Miriam Celaya, Havana, 24 March 2021 ─ On March 22nd, the official Cubadebate website has published an analysis on electronic commerce in Cuba one year after the implementation of the TuEnvío platform. Despite the forced omissions imposed by the dictatorship’s orders to its spokespersons, the article recognizes some of the numerous problems that weigh down this “new” service to nationals, although the author, Oscar Figueredo Reinaldo, washes his hands of possible indictments by pointing to the “blockade”, the global economic crisis and the sanctions imposed by the Trump administration as the root causes of the inefficiency of virtual stores: insufficient supply.

Among the successes of the TuEnvío state platform, which promotes sales of the CIMEX and Caribbean chains, is that with this option the crowds of the eternal queues in each store in the country are avoided, with the consequent risk of multiplying contagion and expansion of the disease. In the text, mention is made of elements that have been introduced to improve the platform, such as the acquisition of new equipment in order to improve network traffic, readjustment of shopping hours and reduction of delivery times and (supposedly) a greater stability of the offer.

However, these improvements are not reflected in the experience of users, among whom a “collective sense of frustration and disappointment” predominates. For these, in addition to technology inefficiency, the main obstacle lies in the gap between the growing demand of the population and insufficient store supplies.

This tends to be confirmed in the data provided by CIMEX executives through other media, and that in the reference article reflects a decline in the delivery of between 5,000 and 6,000 daily modules of food and sanitary items in relation to last October, despite the fact that, at that time, the daily dispatch (20,000 modules) far from satisfied the platform’s registered customer demand, which currently amounts to approximately 800,000.

Other problems are added to the limitations of the offering, that are reasons for recurring complaints by customers. These are related to technological failures, such as page instability, connection drops, saturation, emptying of the “shopping carts” before having completed the cycle, disappearance of some items after they have been selected, as well as the practice of imposing “combos” that forces customers to purchase products that they do not want or need as a part of a package. Frequent difficulties with banking service are also reported through the Transfermóvil application, to which national cards are attached.

Of course, in the analysis of yore, the complaint against hoarders and resellers is ever present and has become an obligatory reference in all official press releases related to real or virtual trade, as if said phenomenon were the cause and not the consequence of the chronic shortages of food and other basic necessities, a phenomenon typical of a highly unproductive and incompetent economic system.

A line stretches into the night (Photo by the author)

Thus, with exquisite “ingenuity”, the author discovers that “the battle to acquire scarce hygiene and food products has shifted to online spaces”, generating the resurgence of a “parallel market” (of hoarders), which implies resales at higher prices which “affects the pockets of millions of Cubans and defeats the government’s efforts to increase the quality of life of the population by increasing wages.”

Thus, this communicator ─ who is not by chance the Editorial Coordinator of Cubadebate and a regular journalist on the Roundtable television program, who has special permission to make moderate “criticisms” of the national reality ─ seems to ignore that the resale of scarce products has not only always existed among us, but has also been perfected and diversified to the extent that the shortages suffered by the population and the inability of the State to satisfy them have both multiplied, so the underground market (which is not “parallel”) has not “moved” to online spaces, but has expanded from real to virtual space, beyond the intended righteousness of a government whose most palpable show of goodwill towards its people is also the unstoppable increase in official prices, much higher than the artificial rise in wages and pensions of Cubans from the overhyped (un)-Ordering Task.

What Cubadebate qualifies as a return to “feudal times”, endorsed in the exchange (barter) and “trading of merchandise by online groups” is the appropriate response to the reality of a feudal economy driven by a government that stubbornly refuses to move towards the inevitable: an opening towards the freedoms of vernacular entrepreneurs and national commerce that increases production, sanitizes the internal economy and satisfies those market demands that do not depend on imports and that have nothing to do with the hackneyed U.S. “blockade”.

(Photo by the author)

Meanwhile, in recent times an interesting phenomenon has been registered in relation to an evident change in attitude of Cubans, who have gone from acceptance to criticism, as can be seen in the comments of the forum members on the pages of the official press, and whose interventions are much more revealing and realistic than the complicit texts of the scribes of the Castro press. The stubborn reality shows that you cannot have an entire people deceived all the time, and even less so in this era of the Internet and social networks.

Increasingly irreverence, questioning and mockery are the popular response to the disrespect of the regime and its scribes, as sealed in the case at hand with the satirical comment of one of the forum members: “TuEnvío seems very good to me, the whole day to shop, you don’t eat but are entertained”. Let that sentence function in summarizing the perception that Cubans have about electronic commerce one year after its implementation on the Island.

Translated by Norma Whiting