Cuban Web Entrepreneur Endures a Murky Status
Clever business people like Hiram Centelles find ways to offer online services in Cuba despite tight restrictions. Will they flourish or be swamped by foreign competition when the communist island finally opens up?
Hiram Centelles, the 31-year-old cofounder of Revolico, a Craigslist-style marketplace and classified advertising hub for Cuba, has spent the last seven years 4,617 miles from Havana, in Córdoba, Spain.
Advertising, operating a business without a government-issued license, selling anything outside of state-run stores—it’s all illegal in Cuba. And that’s exactly what’s made his business such a hit. Years of communist repression and the U.S. trade embargo have created a thirst for wares that are easily available elsewhere, from modems to motorcycles, but are found in Cuba only on the black market. “It’s a mess the way people buy and sell stuff in Cuba,” Centelles told me. That’s what made him dub the site revolico, slang for mess or commotion.
Centelles is part of a small cadre of Cuban technophiles who have cobbled together Web-related businesses in an extremely poor and restrictive country, where just 5 percent of the people connect fully to the Internet. Now these entrepreneurs, like their country itself, could soon be at a crossroads. If the current thaw in relations convinces the United States to lift the embargo, Cuba’s economy could open up significantly—and even more so if the Castro regime ends in the coming years. Will these early Internet entrepreneurs become Cuba’s first generation of tech leaders? Or will they become historical footnotes, unable to compete with a wave of investment by foreign telecom and technology companies?
Centelles awaits such developments in limbo in Spain, where he can stay out of the reach of Cuban authorities and keep the website running. He says he’ll remain abroad until Cubans have far greater Web penetration and more credit cards and bank accounts. “In five years,” he says, “maybe I’ll be back in Cuba. I hope so.”
Centelles launched Revolico in December 2007 with his childhood friend Carlos Peña. It was hardly the typical startup setup. Centelles, then 23, was a senior at Havana’s Polytechnic Institute, and Peña had been living in Spain with his family since 2006. They were inspired by Ubaldo Huerta, a Cuban expat who moved to Spain and built a Craigslist-like classified service there called LoQUo, which he eventually sold to eBay.
Centelles had grown up in Havana in the 1990s, when the island felt the weight of the Soviet Union’s collapse, the flood of Russian rubles ceased, and the mercado negro ballooned. Modern Cubans like him weren’t satisfied with bootleg shoes and cigarettes. They wanted not only satellite TV and computers but easier ways to buy things—bikes, cars, and very Cuban-specific things, such as spots in line for visas at the Spanish embassy. Some early users posted ads on Revolico for arranged marriages.
After only a few months online, Centelles knew he was on to something. But he faced a major problem—building an audience and making sales.
Almost no one in Cuba has bank accounts, and credit cards are outlawed. Today, Internet access in the country of 11 million people is available primarily through shaky Wi-Fi at 155 scattered hot spots for $5 an hour, or through painfully slow dial-up service at state-regulated computer labs. If this sounds austere, remember, we’re now in Cuba’s Perestroika period. The Wi-Fi spots are brand new, as of this summer. When Revolico started almost eight years ago, Cuba was even more sclerotic. Back then, Centelles used a pirated VPN router to scramble Revolico’s IP address “several times per hour,” he says. But the authorities eventually caught on. The site would get blocked and then come back online with yet another IP address.
It was exhausting work. By late 2008, while still fighting the government, Centelles was recruited by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs for a position with Cuba’s version of the CIA, he says. He was shocked by the offer and unsure why he was recruited. Worrying it was a setup to throw him in jail, he left for Spain. He obtained a work visa by claiming that Peña’s family was hiring him as a housekeeper.
With new Spanish servers, and reunited with his cofounder, Centelles quickly got Revolico running again. But with so few Cubans able to get online, he knew he needed another approach. Through friends back home he connected with El Paquete Semanal, a service that makes offline deliveries of digital information every week. Cubans pay El Paquete around $2 a week to get thumb drives containing movies, music, news, apps, and other files, including Revolico listings. Elio Lopez, the founder of El Paquete, runs the service by illegally accessing Internet data from satellites and sending 200 couriers out to distribute the thumb drives (and collect the ones from the previous week).
Now Centelles says Revolico has eight million page views a month, 25,000 new listings a day, and a stable of paying customers—half of them in Florida. His team has expanded to six people—four in Spain, two in Cuba—making collections from hundreds of customers who pay $15 a week, or $50 a month, in cash, to post their ads. Instead of sending an e-mail to respond to an ad, as you probably would on Craigslist, Revolico users in Cuba generally connect by phone to meet up and complete a deal, also in cash. “When any Cuban wants to buy or sell, the first thing that comes to mind is to search or put it on Revolico,” says Yondainer Gutiérrez, the cofounder of AlaMesa, a Cuban restaurant directory service that’s similar to Yelp and OpenTable.
Centelles made a return visit to his homeland in 2011, not knowing what to expect. Every potential scenario flooded his mind—cuffs and a cell, perhaps? To his surprise, no officials approached him. Nothing happened. And that further emboldened him. In 2012, he came out as the public face of Revolico. Working with Huerta, the émigré who initially inspired him, he has also cofounded a phone-charging service for Cubans called Fonoma and a crowdfunding site called Yagruma. Earlier this year, he again rolled the dice and visited Cuba. And again, the government didn’t do anything to him.
That is why he’s mulling whether to someday return for good. He misses his family, his friends, his culture. “I think about it every day,” he says.