Bartering on Telegram to Navigate Cuba’s Shortages

By Glenda Boza Ibarra and Alberto C. Toppin  (El Toque)

Foto: Sadiel Mederos

“Basically, it’s like going back to the Stone Age, when people would exchange goods. But it’s solved quite a few problems.”

HAVANA TIMES – Packages of basic products sold on Tu Envio and at some stores brought a return to bartering in Cuba. Thousands come together from all over the island to swap items they don’t need for others they do. 

Ariadna Rodriguez Carratala has two little girls and back pain, which doesn’t allow her to stand for long periods. During the months of lockdown, she hasn’t suffered food and personal hygiene item shortages like other Cubans. A Telegram group saved her some headache… and from lines.

“I don’t remember how I stumbled across DandoyDando Chat, but I really liked the idea. I thought it was super original and super necessary at the time,” she tells El Toque.  

Rodriguez Carratala found a way to exchange items she didn’t need from the “combo packages” sold on the online stores.

“I get cooking oil and I put it up in the group because I know there are people unable to buy it using Tu Envio. I swap it for something that I need. I’ve done this with some things I get extra in the combo package, which I’m not really interested in. I can exchange them, and some other things I have, like rice.”

How do exchanges work on Telegram

Ever since CIMEX announced the new online sale of packages worth 10, 15, 20 and 30 CUC, many customers predicted that these “combos” wouldn’t always have all of the products that the general population really needs.

“Not every Cuban can pay 10 CUC for a pack of detergent and two bars of soap,” Yanet Pulido says. “In combos sold in Cienfuegos, for example, they include lots of pampers and I don’t have any children. It’s unfair to pay this much just so I can have access to what I really need.”

Yanet says she made a pact with work colleagues who needed diapers. In that way she could buy some combos. But she had to keep other products she didn’t need at the time, like sweets or perfume.

“In the exchange group, I get rid of all the things I don’t need. I sell them for the same price and get my money back.”

Every group or channel has its own regulations in order to make this process as fair as possible. Admins run these groups with a watchful eye to ensure this.

Resellers for higher prices are not allowed

“In order for a sale, products must keep the original store prices. Reselling a product (at a higher price) is penalized. The person is kicked out of the group and associated channels.” A message warns as much on the top of the exchange group in Cienfuegos.

To facilitate this process, formats for messages are outlined in every group. These usually include tags like “I want”, “exchange”, “I’m giving” and “I live” to post exchange details. These include users’ addresses. In some cases, sales, prices and whether it includes transport. Then, the interested person sends a private message to the other.

ETECSA recently announced that over 4 million Cubans connect online sometime using mobile data. There are no exact figures about how many national Telegram users there are. However, this network is ever more popular on the island. This due to its many functions and because it saves data.

Up until mid-August, almost 10,000 Cubans were using the exchange channels on the abovementioned Russian social media. Depending on a product’s value, people can exchange one for another of a similar price. Or exchange a couple products to make up the equivalent. Sometimes, they are also sold for the same price.

Exchange groups’ rules and organization

Lea and Adria are admins of the Villa Clara group. According to Lea, when they learned that Tu Envio wouldn’t be selling more products individually, people became extremely concerned about having to buy items they didn’t want or need.

“So, we shared the idea with many users of TuEnvio Sta Clara. We created a group and a channel where products could be swapped. Another option is to receive the real price of these back.”

According to Adrian, these initiatives already existed in other provinces, and they decided to start one up in Villa Clara.

“With product shortages, often we were able to buy some but not others. There is always somebody willing to give up something they don’t need or have in excess. This, while receiving in return something they do need,” he says.

Adrian has used the group himself many times to swap personal hygiene items for food. He says that it is very comforting when a member manages to do an exchange and announces this to the rest of the group.

Lea also thinks this. She denies seeing many initiatives that allow people to make back the real cost of the items. Products they had to buy as part of the “combo” package, which they don’t really need.

“People hike up prices on the street,” she says. “I have managed to get a lot of what I need with the group. I made my first exchange thanks to this platform and I was very happy.”

Tu Envio isn’t the only supplier

While many groups began to swap products that appear in Tu Envio’s combo packages, others have a different background. These include all kinds of things. Maxxi San Fernando tells us that he began to swap things with his friends. Then he had the idea of creating a wider network.

“I thought about it a lot,” he says. “I was trying to organize the idea for a while because I had never run a group like this.  I had to configure the bots so that it was an organized group, with rules, which wouldn’t include sales.”

Maxxi believes that bartering for products in online store packages isn’t the main activity, at least on DandoYDando Chat.

“Exchanging is a phenomenon that gets rid of a monetary exchange. From what I’ve seen in my group, not many post products from the Tu Envio combo package. In my group, people especially post about what they have at home. A few extra pounds of rice, toothpaste, cooking oil and spaghetti from the rations store. Some other things too bought at stores.”

According to Maxxi, the current economic crisis is the key reason the exchanges appeared. People are buying everything they can so they can then swap it for what they need.

Mothers in Santa Clara have their group

Liset Cruz learned about the Villa Clara group via another called Madres Solidarias Santa Clara (Solidary Mothers in Santa Clara). “I joined because I thought it could be useful. Plus, all of the exchanges are done at retail price, nothing is resold higher.”

Some people don’t swap anything but sell the product for the same price.

“The group is very good and the admins are very strict when it comes to resellers,” Cruz adds. “I have already seen them kick somebody out of the group because they were reselling.”

Aliette Arguelles says that she is still getting used to the format with the corresponding tags. “Not everybody has the same agility or skill with this kind of communication. In fact, I was kicked out by a bot one time because I didn’t write my post properly.”

However, not only has she obtained products she needed in these groups, but says she has also made new friends.

National phenomenon… but provincial exchanges

According to the Tu Envio board bot, at least 12 provinces have a product exchange group. However, this figure isn’t exactly accurate. There are unlisted groups, such as the one on the Isle of Youth (with over 2500 users). And the group run by Maxxi San Fernando, with over 600. In Havana, there is another group with over 2000 members.

Regional organization stemmed from the same order for groups for online shopping at CIMEX-owned stores. In fact, many people are exchanging items while waiting to buy on Tu Envio. They read messages announcing the idea of an exchange.

“I reached this group from other groups I’m in, online shopping ones,” Marian Arias Viciedo remembers. She’s a user of DandoYDando Chat. “It was being advertised and I decided to sign up to see what the deal was. Basically, it’s like going back to the Stone Age, when people would exchange goods. But it’s solved quite a few problems.”

Bartering isn’t new in Cuba

Bartering in Cuba isn’t just something happening during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many people remember it from the toughest years of the 1990s Special Period. Many Cubans also found exchanges to be a way for them to get the items they needed.

“Having money isn’t always enough,” Yanet Pulido explains. “Back then, people would exchange whatever they had a little extra of for things they needed. I know some people who have even swapped medicine. It’s a valid initiative, although some people mock us and even call us “Indians”.

Medicines are hard to get a hold of right now, Ariadna Rodriguez Carratala weighs in. “I have managed to get Meclizina on DandoYDando Chat, which you couldn’t find in drugstores. I swapped cooking oil for it. I needed Bisacodilo one time, which isn’t being produced, and I swapped powdered milk for it,” she adds. According to her, some medicines can only be found like this. Medicines that aren’t available in national and international drugstores. Likewise, it’s hard for families abroad to send them over now with our air borders closed.

These groups will remain until supply is closer to meeting demand and products are efficiently distributed in every municipality. For the time being, bartering on Telegram continues to win over new followers.

“This exchange group is a great idea,” Marian Arias Viciedo says. “To tell you the truth, many people, including myself, resolve a lot of their problems. This comes with the added bonus of not having to wait in the lines.”

Read more articles from Glenda Boza Ibarra