Cuba is an island nation where less than 5% of the people living there have internet access. The country is one of the last Marxist-Leninist states in the world. The Cuban government does not allow complete unfettered access to the open internet, and like in many other countries around the world, such as China, many sites are blocked or censored by the state. The Cuban government also criminalizes many economic activities, which forces many Cubans to turn to the black market to conduct business. In 2007, two expatriates from Cuba living in Spain helped start Cuba’s biggest digital black market, Revolico. Revolico translates to “disarray” or “a mess”. The two men who founded the site are Hiram Centelles Rodriguez and Carlos Javier Peña Diaz. While many products and services on Revolico aren’t legal, the sale of drugs is prohibited on the site.
Revolico was blocked just months after launching from US servers in 2007. Cubans have gotten around the state’s blocking of the site by using proxy servers, DNS tricks, and mirrors of the site. The site is also distributed in a unique offline manner, through the “El Paquete Semanal”, which translates to The Weekly Packet (or package). These paquetes are loaded onto USB sticks and external hard drives and spread throughout the country. The drives contain about a terabyte of data. The paquete contains files which are illegally brought to the country from the United States and contain classified advertisements, pirated Hollywood movies and TV shows, mobile phone apps, news sites, and the Spanish language version of Wikipedia. A new updated paquete is available every Tuesday. The paquete also contains the digital black markets Revolico and another known as “Popular”. Popular is similar to Revolico, except it allows users to place advertisements through SMS text messages.
Many Cuban shops sell the paquetes and even openly advertise them for sale. In the decade since it has launched, El Paquete Semanal has become a primary source of news and entertainment for millions of Cubans. The sneakernet distribution model of El Paquete Semanal has helped the majority of Cubans who lack regular internet access obtain data that the state prohibits. The Revolico market is similar to Craigslist and has been called the “eBay of Cuba”. The market lists hundreds of thousands of products and services. Users can purchase electronics, vehicles, food, jewelry, find housing, mechanics, and more. People interested in an advertisement are able to call or text the seller. It was only in 2013 that Cubans were able to begin selling automobiles without state permission, and now many cars and other vehicles are available on Revolico. The state first banned the sale of automobiles in 1959. Advertisements claiming to install internet service in people’s homes are also found on the market.
Etecsa, a state owned and operated telecommunications company, has set up over a hundred WiFi hotspots throughout Cuba, but many Cubans are still unable to access the internet. The cost of accessing WiFi is prohibitively expensive for most Cubans. Those Cubans who can connect to the internet usually have to rely on proxies or mirrors of Revolico to access the market. Last year Revolico was temporarily unlocked for people accessing the internet through Etecsa’s Nauta internet accounts at “browsing rooms” and WiFi hotspots in Cuba. The market’s website was also available at internet connections in many Cuban hotels. During this brief period, users connecting to the internet through Cuba’s Infomed institutions were still being blocked. Infomed is run by the state’s Ministry of Public Health.
Thanks to digital black markets like Revolico and Popular, the Cuban people are now able to exercise more economic freedom and gain greater access to modern technology and entertainment. Revolico co-founder Carlos Javier Peña Diaz told Motherboard that the state views the Revolico market as a threat, although the site’s owners do not intend for it to be seen that way. “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,” Diaz said. “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.” However, the site is in fact a threat to the state’s stranglehold on Cuban economic activity. The Cuban government has launched their own classifieds website and newspaper, called Ofertas, which translates to Offers, however, the state’s classifieds site is much less popular than Revolico.