Online ‘Lines’ in Cuba in the Time of Coronavirus

The Cuban authorities have opened a network of virtual stores as a way to avoid the crowds standing in line to acquire basic necessities.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, April 20, 2020 — Dianelys filled her virtual shopping cart with some sausage, cooking oil, cookies and bath soap. Once she concluded the purchase, she waited a week for the email notifying her to pick up her order at the shop, but, instead, she got a message saying her money would be refunded to her card because the products were sold out.

Cimex, one of the business arms of the Cuban military, announced recently the expansion to several provinces of services of the digital platform TuEnvío, which combines several markets for online shopping, as a way of avoiding crowds so customers can buy basic necessities without having to leave their homes in these times of COVID-19.

The news was tarnished when, days later, very few internauts could access the shopping site. Most of them couldn’t even register; others had problems viewing the products or paying at the end of the process. The constant failures of the platform generated a chorus of demands, complaints and frustrations that spread across social networks and official media.

“They didn’t calculate demand well, which was a mistake, because in this desperate situation of buying food, you could predict this would happen,” Samuel, a 28-year-old computer programmer who has developed several applications for Android, told 14ymedio. “There are many good examples of online shops in the world, so they can’t justify themselves by saying that it was something being done for the first time.”

But Samuel warns that the problems with the platform transcend questions of bandwidth or server capacity. “The information about each product is poor, and the photos shown aren’t good quality. Choosing the amounts, which are rationed, is not easy, and the tool will have to be simplified to reach a larger public.”

In order to calm people, the authorities explained on national media that, owing to a “high demand for service, the page has become unstable” and has required “uninterrupted maintenance” in order to manage the traffic of internauts who accessed the main page more from necessity than curiosity.

A short time ago the online shops were functioning so people could buy food for their families and some products from the State stores. But since the end of March, and after the first cases of Covid-19 on the Island, these stores — where you could buy meat, beans, rice and cleaning products — were not offering service or had only a few products to sell.

Nor were the hard currency shops, which opened at the end of last year for the sale of appliances and car parts, offering service, because the commercial network on the Island was meant exclusively for basic products, like food and cleaning supplies.

Last Friday, Cimex opened a forum to answer criticisms. The digital meeting became an ordeal for employees of the conglomerate, who had to endure an avalanche of complaints. In the majority of cases, they were limited to recommending to consumers that they send an email to customer service.

The web site was down for a long time this weekend. “Dear clients, we will momentarily halt the flow of orders in order to readjust the logistical processing. We will return shortly. The orders that are in progress won’t be affected,” the page said.

The authorities also have limited purchases to two units of each product, to avoid hoarding, but the digital shops generate another type of segregation. For now you can only pay with a card associated with an account in Cuban pesos on the EnZona platform, created by the Enterprise of Information Technology for Defense (Xetid).

In January of this year, EnZona had accumulated a volume of sales worth 9,000,000 pesos, with a little more than 23,000 registered users. “Those who can buy now are the happy ones,” laments Lisset Echevarría, who uses the Metropolitan Bank of Havana and has spent weeks trying to get a card.

This newspaper called a dozen bank branches in the capital on Monday, and at least a fourth of them weren’t processing requests for a card. Two recommended avoiding in-person transactions that “aren’t vital” and the rest said to “call again on Tuesday or Wednesday,” to get a precise date when the process would begin.

Zurelys, 38, insisted this Monday on shopping in the Carlos III commercial center, which is among those offered by TuEnvîo. “The connection to this site isn’t secure,” and you shouldn’t “enter confidential information,” the browser warned her as soon as she tried to access the site. She was undeterred and continued, but after three hours, she gave up.

“I could never get to the point of paying because the browser constantly gave me an error message. When I added something to my cart it emptied by itself, or when I tried to select a product, it wouldn’t let me,” Zurelys complains. “They told me it’s better to do it at dawn when there is less traffic, so I should set my alarm for two in the morning.”

But waiting doesn’t end once you’ve filled your cart with purchases and made a digital payment. Shipping can take up to seven days to fall into the hands of the client, and in last Friday’s forum, one of the most repeated complaints was about the delay in deliveries. The most cautious prefer to opt for picking up the goods in the store, but this becomes difficult with the cancellation of public transport.

“This is like the lines we’ve had all our lives, but now, instead of sleeping on the sidewalk outside the shop, you have to stay for hours or days in front of your screen,” says Zurelys. “On top of that, at least in a line you know who you’re behind and how things are going, but here, every time I get an ’error’ message, I have to go back to the beginning. This is a line without end.”

Translated by Regina Anavy 


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