Basic Necessities shows the increasing digitisation of the informal economy in Cuba, exposing the images and interactions between Cubans buying and selling goods through online chat groups.
When the COVID-19 pandemic led to scarcities in government-run shops, many inhabitants of Cuba’s capital Havana turned to chat groups in order to access everyday products. Messaging applications such as Telegram and WhatsApp replaced the traditional black market in Cuba for accessing food, hygiene products, medication and other basic necessities. During the government's #quedateencasa (stay at home) campaign, some of the groups quickly garnered members in the ten thousands, and became an inescapable necessity for many Habaneros seeking to fulfil their daily needs.
Digital black markets are nothing new in Cuba, despite persistent internet scarcity. Since 2007, the classifieds website Revolico has facilitated the exchange of foreign consumer products such as smartphones, computers or clothes by international brands that are imported into the country by importers (so-called mulas). The recent expansion of internet access has created new opportunities for illicit e-commerce. The rapid success of chat groups as online market spaces became possible only when the government introduced a 3G network in December 2018, enabling smartphone owners to finally be able to enjoy a reliable internet connection.
Based on long-term research, Basic Necessities offers a startling documentation of societal needs in a time of crisis. The project allows us to see in what products are currently in high demand; what goods are available through state distribution channels; what are impossible to obtain and even what the current price of a kilogram of chicken meat is.