Cuba's Black Market Is a Website That Exists Primarily Offline
How do you navigate to a website when you don't have the internet?
Image: David Osit for Motherboard
On Cuba's version of Craigslist, a website called Revolico, you will find all the usual stuff: Bikes and cars for sale, job offers, apartments for rent, guitar lessons and old digital cameras. You'll also find something you probably wouldn't expect to find on a website: People selling internet access.
Revolico, or "ruckus" in English, is a website, as I mentioned. It's the most popular black market in Cuba, where an estimated five percent of people have access to the full internet, according to the nonprofit Freedom House. So how do Cubans get and use Revolico? By finding it offline, of course.
The site, started by Cuban expats in Spain and hosted in the United States, has been technically blocked in Cuba since months after it launched in 2007, though people with internet connections on the island have continually managed to stay a step ahead of government censors. In part, that's because the site's founders have created a slew of proxy servers, DNS workarounds, private web addresses, and mirrors that have allowed Revolico to remain accessible in Cuba. There are entire sections on Revolico dedicated to teaching you how to access the site.
"It's been blocked since it started, but we've been working all these years to give Cubans ways to access the site," Carlos Javier Pena, one of the site's founders, told me. "It's become a cultural thing, when people buy something they think of Revolico as 'the market.' It's the place they can find anything. It's where they can buy things the government won't let them have."
"I'm looking for a good internet connection, call me"
Nonetheless, the most common way people access Revolico is totally offline, turning it into a mix between old school classifieds and regular ol' Craigslist that is distinctly Cuban.
Ever since its inception, Revolico has been a vital portion of the paquete, a weekly motherlode of files smuggled from the United States (presumably Miami) to Cuba on external hard drives and USB drives.
The paquete, or "package," comes every Tuesday and within a day has made its way to every corner of the island, complete with brand new pirated episodes of television series from around the world, foreign news, music, ebooks, magazines, computer games and programs, and Android and iPhone applications. In addition to new movies (Minions, Pixels, End of the World) and TV shows, the paquete always contained an entire copy of the Spanish-language Wikipedia and Revolico, which takes up about a gigabyte of space. Another market, called "Popular," is also distributed through the paquete and allows users to publish ads using SMS.
"We don't want to represent a danger for the government, but that's how they see us."
The paquete is available in basically any business that has a computer, and it's surely available at the many small smartphone repair / video pirating stores that are common in even small towns. I was able to purchase the paquete in five different Cuban cities with no problem whatsoever. It costs less than a dollar, and it's something that basically every Cuban knows about—some stores even advertise it openly.
Once downloaded from the paquete, Revolico can be navigated as normal in a web browser, and would-be buyers are able to contact sellers with a phone call, just like you'd do if you came across the ad in a newspaper.
In Havana, I met an artist who doesn't really download much of the paquete besides Revolico. But the marketplace, he told me, is known by everyone in Cuba and is essential.
It's particularly striking to see some of the ads: "I'm looking for a good internet connection, call me," one of the ads says. Another, offering a dial-up internet connection, says "$140 CUC, install your full internet connection with access to everything" (an email I sent in response to this ad was not returned. The CUC is pegged to the dollar and costs about $140 USD).
Other ads are for services that specialize in placing ads for people who can't connect to Revolico. In other words, people with internet connections will, for a small fee, help you sell your car or your refrigerator or whatever you're trying to get rid of. It's an entire website full of people who can't or don't use the web.
Despite its illegal status, it's obvious that Revolico, and the Cuban black market aren't going away. Earlier this year, the communist government offered its own competing service, called "Ofertas," (offers, or sales in English) which publishes both a website and a paper copy of classifieds. So far, it is markedly less popular than Revolico, perhaps because many of the listings on Revolico are quasi-legal at best. While you can buy an old camera or computer on Ofertas, you can't buy illegal routers or internet connections and the like.
"Cuba is changing, so it's normal to have these kinds of sites there now," Pena told me. "We don't have any political intentions and we don't want to represent a danger for the government, but that's how they see us."
"We don't understand why Revolico is still blocked," he added. "It's my dream for it to just be available to the people. To just be on the internet."