14ymedio, Juan Diego Rodríguez, Havana, 13 May 2023 — A crowd of people were milling around, suddenly and at full speed, in front of number 665 Carlos III Street. There, two blocks from the market of the same name, where the Pepsi Cola Company of Cuba once was, informal sellers are usually found. This Friday they grumbled about the intruders who were taking their place.
On one step, there were several boxes of soft drinks, one of beer, and a promotional poster of the joint venture Haitech, formed by the Cuban state-owned company Copextel and a Chinese partner. With a brightly colored background, a soft drink was offered in exchange for joining a WhatsApp group and sharing the address of the store in two groups on any social network.
Although the instructions were clear, people kept asking: “What do we have to do?” On the other side, the crowd was attended by two young people, one with Chinese features and the other Cuban. The first, in precarious Spanish, tried to give explanations out loud but could not make himself understood. “I’m going with the Cuban guy because I don’t understand Chinese,” said one lady. “You have to scan the code and follow these instructions,” said the Cuban.
In its virtual store, Haitech offers different appliances and electronic devices (refrigerators, freezers, fans, computer CPUs, meat grinders, blenders, line protectors) at prices in dollars, although there isn’t much to see: just 14 items. The most expensive is a desktop PC, at $795.80, and the cheapest, an LED light bulb at $4.35. As an offer, there was a solar charger reduced from $31.45 to $10.99.
The WhatsApp group that was accessed by scanning the code was managed by two people who called themselves Gema Wang and Nico Zheng, who answered the questions of those who were entering. Many searched for electrical household appliances or devices that aren’t in their catalog, such as pressure cookers or washing machines, which, they assured them, “will arrive in July.”
“Are they cheaper than in stores in MLC (freely convertible currency)?” asked another potential customer. “Yes!” they answered, despite the fact that items can be bought only with foreign Visa, Mastercard or UnionPay cards (that is, they can only be acquired by emigrants who purchase them for their relatives on the Island).
Although Wang and Zheng welcomed people on WhatsApp saying that they are “a Chinese company,” on their website it can be verified that they are based in Hong Kong and operated jointly with the Cuban state-owned company Copextel, belonging to the Electronic, Automation and Communications Industry Group (Gelect).
Until now, the agreements between China and the Island to create joint ventures in the field of biotechnology were known — one of which, dedicated to producing a drug against nasopharyngeal cancer, was praised in the official press just last month — but barely any are known to be in commerce.
Last November, after the official visit to China of Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel, Beijing and Havana signed a total of 12 agreements about which no details were offered beyond saying that “they cover different sectors.”
Among them was a “memorandum of understanding” signed by the ministries of Commerce of both countries for the “strengthening of economic and trade cooperation,” and another with the Agency for International Development Cooperation aimed at “promoting the Chinese proposal for global development.”
In any case, the union of foreign private individuals with Cuban state companies has been raising suspicions for months. The latest denunciation has come from the Communists of Cuba collective, a Trotskyite group, saying that “the Cuban ruling bureaucracy advances decisively to the capitalist restoration, implementing the Chinese-Vietnamese model.”
Those who joined the WhatsApp group were not worried about this at all and immediately turned the exchange of messages into a private bulletin board for the sale of coffee, milk or chicken. Most of them, however, entered the site and left a short time later.
The drinks — 12 Sprite, 12 Orange Fanta, 24 Coca-Cola and 24 beers from the Chinese brand Tsingtao, which Cubans usually make fun of for its similarity with the word singao [“motherfucker”] — vanished in half an hour. Getting a soft drink was the only thing that mattered about Haitech to those who joined the WhatsApp group.
Translated by Regina Anavy
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