Longform

Revolico Moves Cuba's Black Market Online

Mateo might just be the best mecánico in Havana, Cuba.

The cars that roll into his little garage — tucked into a crumbling building amid decrepit colonials — would make an American mechanic laugh like hell.

There are '53 Chevys, lime green and the length of a school bus. Nearby are rusty 37-year-old, Russian-made Ladas and late-'50s Buicks with surfboard-sized tail fins.

Mateo keeps them all running — a makeshift gas tank in the trunk here, a duct-taped exhaust pipe there.

He learned to do it while growing up in Cienfuegos and Havana, where the embargo has kept new American cars off the roads for almost a half-century. The 55-year-old with a scratchy voice was a boy the last time a fresh Caddy rolled into Cuba.

He is a damned good mechanic, but Mateo, like most of his homeland, struggles today.

Three hurricanes tore through the island last summer, pummeling his ground-level shop with floodwater and cutting power to his second-floor apartment. Now the global financial meltdown has left the capital city short of bread, toilet paper, and cash to fix old cars.

But two months ago, Mateo got a glimpse of the future. One of his three kids, 23-year-old Manuel, wanted to join some friends on a trip to the northern coast. For months, father and son tried to unload some expensive rims to raise money. Though Manuel thought they were worth 300 pesos — about $325 — no one was biting.

"Dad," Manuel finally said, "have you heard about Revolico?"

Revolico? In Cuban slang, it means "a mess." Mateo had no idea what his son was talking about.

So Manuel took his father to the house of a friend, an engineer with spotty internet access. They logged onto revolico.com and discovered a capitalist Valhalla. There was everything for sale: cars, tires, motorcycles, diapers, cell phones, laptops, massages, Chinese lessons.

"This was my first time on the internet," Mateo says in Spanish. (New Times agreed not to publish his real name because selling on the site is illegal on the island.) "But I can see that it is great. Like all Cubans, I want to use it more."

Revolico, in fact, is Craigslist for the world's last Marxist-Leninist state. On an island where selling almost anything on the street, over the airwaves, or in the newspaper is forbidden by the socialist constitution, Revolico offers tens of thousands of items. Legions of Habaneros shop on the site every day, making it the most obvious crack yet in the foundation of Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Scores of Revolico users interviewed over the past month include a wide swath of island dwellers — from first-time internet users such as Mateo to web-savvy college kids. By bringing Cuba's huge black market online, the site has changed the way residents think about buying and selling.

"Revolico absolutely blows my mind," says Jose Gabilondo, a Florida International University law professor who has spent years studying Cuba's economy. "It shows how Castro's era will end with a whimper. His control is failing there one online deal at a time."

The Founders

Jose was born in Havana a few years before his homeland's messy divorce from the imploding Soviet Union. It wasn't an easy time to be a kid in the capital city. When the Berlin Wall fell and Moscow shrugged off Communism, millions of Russian rubles stopped flowing into Castro's coffers. American leaders tightened their embargo on the island — making life even more dismal.

Buying and selling almost anything outside state-owned stores had been illegal since Castro grabbed control in 1968. But even during those early years of socialism, people sold cigarettes, food, and shoes in Havana's alleys and backrooms.

During Jose's childhood, that market exploded. From 1989 to 1993, the mercado negro grew sevenfold, from 2 billion pesos to 14.5 billion, according to a study by the semi-independent Editorial Ciencias Sociales.

Jose's parents were both ordinary, state-employed professionals, so he grew up depending on black-market food and clothes. He was always good at math and science. So was his best friend, another nerdy city kid, Juan Sanchez.

During the long, sweltering summer of 1997, a friend introduced the two 16-year-olds to a middleman with an original Pentium computer. They were fascinated. Personal computers were forbidden. Jose and Juan bought it for a few dollars.

"We were like many others in Cuba," says Jose, who declined to give his real name to New Times. "The computer interested us because it was foreign and modern."

The two disassembled the hard drive and put it back together. A few weeks later, they bought a keyboard. "We started with this outdated trash, and we taught ourselves how it all worked," Jose says.

By the time the friends enrolled at the University of Havana in 2000, they understood computers better than many of their teachers. The two friends also knew pretty much every black-market computer geek in Havana.

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Tim Elfrink is an award-winning investigative reporter, the managing editor of the Miami New Times and the co-author of "Blood Sport: Alex Rodriguez and the Quest to End Baseball's Steroid Era." Since 2008, he's written in-depth pieces on police corruption, fatal shootings and social justice issues across South Florida. He's won the George Polk Award and has been a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink