August 3, 2011
By Ron Buchanon, beyondbrics Financial Times
Even as the Cuban president, Raúl Castro, fumes over stumbling blocks placed by his own party bureaucracy to economic reforms, the internet is beginning to remove them one by one.
Castro appears to be meeting resistance from communist diehards – or more likely old-fashioned stick-in-the-muds – to his proposals that would allow private ownership in homes and cars, for example on the Communist island.
That simply is not a problem for a handful of internet sites that are, in effect, putting the reforms into practice.
One site, www.sepermuta.com, has been operating for some years, apparently from a base in Miami, and seems to be tolerated by the Cuban government. The site is based on the “permuta”, or “swap”, system.
All housing in Cuba is state-owned but swaps are allowed, as long as no money is exchanged. It has been an open secret for years in Havana, however, that often large sums have changed hands under the permuta system.
By allowing home ownership, Castro’s reforms will in effect legalise the black market in housing. But sepermuta.com has been quoting prices for years.
When beyondbrics checked out sepermuta.com, several of its features were unavailable because of “database errors”, whatever they might be. But some users’ comments were interesting.
One woman wrote that it was a wonderful site and “something I never imagined that ever existed in Cuba”. Where might she have been all those years?
Another pointed to the reality of any internet project in Cuba: access to the population is very restricted. “It’s really difficult to find someone where I work who has internet access and lets people like me get into the site,” wrote one.
Yet another reflected the absence, through unfamiliarity, of market tools that are normal in other countries but not in Cuba. “In Cuba we don’t seems to understand that ads for apartments should specify their size in floor space,” one cybernaut wrote.
“There are ads with five-bedroom apartments that turn out to have only 100 square meters. These must be just cubby holes, not bedrooms,” he or she snorted. “And there are other apartments of 200 square meters with only two bedrooms. Now that is really spacious but you wouldn’t know the difference from the ads.”
However, sepermuta.com is tame by compared with www.revolico.com, the market leader in every sense of the word. In Cuban Spanish a “revolico” is a bit of a mess. The anonymous organisers of the website admit that it is a mess, “but an organized mess”.
Revolico, which is also based in Miami and has frequently been blocked in Cuba, offers a market in everything from homes, cars, casual sexual encounters, language classes … you name it.
Most of what is on offer is not legal – not yet anyway – though some is tolerated. A photo of a $30 a night apartment on offer to foreigners in central Havana gives a glimpse of a comfortable lifestyle not shared by the Cubans whose rather spartan homes that a beyondbrics correspondent visited on his last trip to the island.
Meanwhile, Raúl Castro appears to be exasperated at the internal opposition to his reforms. In a televised speech on Monday, after days of confabs with party and government leaders, he berated the “psychological barrier to change that is created by inertia”.
And he added: “Not for the first time, I’d say that our worst enemy isn’t imperialism, much less those who get paid within Cuba by the imperialists to do their work for them. The worst enemy is failing to correct our very own errors.”
Maybe Castro could click on a couple of links to see how it’s done. Or maybe he already has.