Havana: “Where to find it?” and “Whatever you want” and “What do you need?”
These are the names of some of the social media groups catering to thousands of Cubans who are using newly available mobile internet to grapple with shortages of basic goods that are worsening under tougher U.S. sanctions.
Armed with internet access on cellphones that came into general use last year, Cubans are forming online chat groups to share tips about where to find dish detergent, chicken, diesel fuel and other scarce essentials. They do so on WhatsApp, Instagram and Facebook.
Without the chat groups, people would have to “spend all day going around the city” looking for things that they need, said Claudia Santander, a graphic designer who administers a dozen WhatsApp groups at no charge.
Now, for example, someone can ask about a certain product toilet paper or milk powder or soap and another person on the chat might reply within minutes to say which store in Havana, the Cuban capital, is stocking it.
Some of the groups have waiting lists of people anxious to get the benefits of being a member.
WhatsApp limits group chat sizes to 256 people, while other platforms accept thousands.
Shopping through social media is easing life for many on the island, but it may be exacerbating inequality and making things harder for those without internet connections.
Cuba doesn’t have classified ads in official newspapers. Some businesses offer sales on the internet, but the social media groups help people grapple almost in real time with constant challenges.
Cubans have been used to struggling for the basics since the collapse of their benefactors in the Soviet Union decades ago, but the situation deteriorated in 2019 after U.S. President Donald Trump escalated sanctions.
The economic woes of Venezuela, a key provider of oil to Cuba, has also hurt the Caribbean country.
As a result, there have often been long lines at shops as well as rationing of products. Many people then turned to social media to try to find what they need.
Cuba began to provide data for cellphones in December 2018, and now has more than 3 million lines in service.