Messaging groups and the digital black-market in Cuba
Cuban people must endure persisting scarcities. When the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns and international travel restrictions that also affected food imports, many people on the island turned to semi-public group chats on messaging applications such as WhatsApp and Telegram for accessing food, medication, hygiene products, and other basic necessities. Once the government-run supermarkets became empty, such chat groups created digital spaces in which members shared vital information about the availability of products in the government supply chain or trade scarce goods on a swap. These groups also have come to constitute a digital black-market in which vendors sell commodities unavailable everywhere else. Some of them quickly reached thousands of members and became an indispensable necessity for Cubans to meet their basic daily needs. This bottom-up development of digital markets via social media is even more intriguing when one considers that Cubans have had access to mobile internet for only three years now. Before, users were restricted to stationary Wi-Fi-hotspots in public spaces where access could be paid for by the hour with the purchase of scratch cards. The Cuban government introduced a 3G network in December 2018 (and then upgraded it to the LTE standard in July 2019) people could have continuous internet connection, which is a prerequisite for the chat groups to function. The data packages are still very expensive, however the introduction of mobile internet services has irrevocably changed Cuban society.
Basic Necessities, our video installation for the Photographers’ Gallery Media Wall documents the vibrant social dynamics in these messenger groups. For this project, we were particularly interested in the role of product photography, its peculiar aesthetics and the strategies with which images are used in these groups. As this digital market is fragmented into multiple competing groups, it is difficult to immediately find certain products and/or services. For our research, we therefore developed BasiCuba, a meta-search engine that allows for real-time access to a database of 476 groups with 707,000 users and approximately 17.8 million posts. It constitutes a comprehensive documentation of this chat groups phenomenon and formed the basis of our investigation.
Photography plays an essential role in this informal market since images not only help customers find what they need, but also provide an important means of establishing trust between buyer and seller. The aesthetics and use of photography in this social context is shaped by the particular limitations and characteristics of both the Cuban sociotechnical context and the platforms on which they circulate. To save data, most people who participated in our research configure their phones so that images on Telegram or WhatsApp only become visible (and are downloaded) when they click on them. As a result, they first read the offer and only then decide if they want to see the photos. Product photos therefore must be really on point: It is very uncommon that sellers would photograph their product from dozens of angles as people on eBay often do, so one image has to convey all the necessary information. Often, sellers use simple cell phone applications to add text such as prices or additional descriptions directly onto the image. These textual elements result in a scattergun aesthetics but also make it easier for sellers to share their offer in multiple groups. They usually also place their phone number directly onto the image, so that even when the image is shared by other users, the vendor’s contact information will not be lost. Often these images are reminiscent of family photo portraits as members of the family often model to present clothes that are for sale. Professional resellers, though, who had bulk-purchased their products when they were still available in the official shops, or who sell goods that were stolen from state workplaces, deploy graphic templates in the product images to achieve a more unified and professional look.
When a user uploads images of several products under one descriptive post, Telegram only shows the first image and minimises the others, forcing interested parties to download multiple photos and therefore waste precious data and time browsing through a series of images of things they might not be interested in. Some vendors, therefore, create collages of multiple items in one single image. If they have sold one of the depicted products in the collage, they usually do not retake and re-upload the photo but simply mark the product with an X in their phones’ photo editor. Another important photographic dimension of these images is their social life as redistributed screenshots. People circulate screenshots of a certain post in different groups to reach more users. Many interviewees told us that they take screenshots of the offers they find most interesting to share them with friends or family or to save them on their phone so as not to lose contact with the seller.
The most important aspect about these product photos is, however, that they are the basis on which buyers decide on whether to trust a particular seller or not. Buying on the black market has always involved certain risks due to the lack of formalisation and state control. Many Cubans have stories to tell about how they, or someone they know, have been scammed on the black market, for example by being sold spoiled, unclean, or altered foodstuffs. Some of these stories, that often take place during the economic crisis after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s (when Cuba suddenly lost all help and subsidies from the socialist camp), have acquired the status of urban legends that are used as warnings: to be cautious and to distrust strangers. Our research participant Maria, for example, only buys products depicted in their original packaging and condemned that many vendors offered portions of shampoo or toothpaste in plastic cups so they could sell smaller units at higher prices. Such hygiene products became so scarce during the pandemic that prices on the black market went up to the equivalent of 8 dollars for a tube of toothpaste. Maria is afraid that such repackaging allows sellers to manipulate either the quantity or the product itself. Other interlocutors criticised vendors who post images downloaded from the internet, instead of photographing the offered items. This was done to hide minor damages in the hope that a buyer who would come all the way to the vendor's house would still buy it, despite the defects. Many people also told us that they always make screenshots of the offers, the private chat conversations with vendors as well as of their phone numbers so they have documentation in case they delete them. Buyers do have some agency in these transactions as well, often publicly accusing sellers who charge exuberant prices under their posts. To evade the scorn of a groups’ member base, some resellers begun to only state prices in private messages.
Photography is, therefore, deeply embedded in the social dynamics of these chat groups. It serves not only for promotion, but also for creating trust and as reassurance in informal market exchanges. The messaging groups through which our interlocutors gain access to food and other basic necessities are part and parcel of a wider range of human infrastructures such as Cuba’s offline data distribution network El Paquete Semanal, or Havana’s city-spanning intranet SNET that all make up for the limitations of state-run projects of infrastructural provision. These private initiatives are what keep the island going, despite the immense pressures of the U.S. embargo and state mismanagement during the global pandemic.
Suggested Citation:Sire, N. & Köhn, S. (2021) 'Messaging groups and the digital black-market in Cuba', The Photographers’ Gallery: Unthinking Photography. Available at: https://unthinking.photography/articles/messaging-groups-and-the-digital-black-market-in-cuba