Mara Karla Sánchez often feels compelled to send groceries to her mother and grandfather;  they live in the Cuban capital of Havana and often struggle to find basic goods on the island. Sánchez, who has been living in Miami since 2015, uses services offered by Cuban e-commerce companies to deliver basic supplies to her family, a system she says is unreliable but necessary. 

“It’s always either a hassle, or the prices are too high, but I’m willing to pay so that my family doesn’t starve,” she told Rest of World. Despite some items often taking months to be delivered or being excessively overpriced — like $260 for a tiny leg of pork — she hasn’t stopped using the shopping platforms for the past two years.

For almost three decades, Cuba operated two currencies: the Cuban peso (CUP), meant for locals, and the dollar-pegged convertible peso (CUC), for foreigners. The currencies were used broadly, but they were the source of many inequalities, as most salaries on the island were paid in CUP, while many products were charged in CUC. “The CUC was mostly used by tourists or Cubans who managed to get their hands on them, as the stores where they are able to shop only accepted CUP,” Mariana Tejeida, Latin America program officer at The International Institute on Race, Equality and Human Rights, told Rest of World. In January 2021, the government eliminated its dual currency system, effectively getting rid of the CUC.

Since then, a smattering of new and existing e-commerce sites, including platforms like last-mile delivery company Mandao and delivery and travel company CubaMax, have gradually soared in popularity. Despite Cuba’s ongoing food scarcity, daily staples are available on these thriving e-commerce platforms, but the majority of Cubans, with limited internet connectivity and a devalued Cuban peso, cannot afford to shop online. But their relatives, most of whom live in the U.S., Europe, or Canada, are avid users of these online platforms, providing them with a boost in business in recent years after a relatively moderate success during the early period of their launch. 

“It’s almost an exaggeration to say there’s an e-commerce industry in Cuba,” Miguel Alejandro Hayes Martínez, a political economist living in Havana, told Rest of World. Only 18% of Cubans have a high-speed internet connection. According to Tejeida’s own calculation, that means e-commerce is limited to less than 10% of the island’s population, those considered to be the “upper economic crust.” Large regional or global e-commerce platforms like MercadoLibre or Amazon still do not operate inside Cuba.

“The prices are too high, but I’m willing to pay so that my family doesn’t starve.”

In recent years, Cubans have used black market sites, like Porlalivre, or Revolico, a website similar to Craigslist, according to Tejeida. They’re digital versions of the revendedores — salespeople who buy and resell products from Cuba’s tourist-only stores to sell to locals. According to Hayes Martínez, some people also buy and sell through Facebook, Telegram, or WhatsApp groups, though they’re usually limited to individual items and small transactions. However, since 2021, use of more structured e-commerce platforms has increased.

Sales at Home Deli, a food and home goods store in Havana that sells through online marketplaces like Katapulk and Mandao have considerably increased since the dollar-pegged peso disappeared, Enmys López, a Home Deli employee with knowledge of the company’s business records, told Rest of World.

Marta Deus, Mandao’s co-founder, said her company works with different suppliers and over 300 restaurants inside Cuba to deliver meals and groceries. “We just transport these items from restaurants or suppliers, who actually have or prepare the products. We’re just helping them meet their customers,” Deus told Rest of World.

There are around around 50 workers who, according to Deus, zip around on their motorcycles for Mandao, wearing bright yellow backpacks, to make deliveries all across Cuba. She also said all products shown in the app are available for purchase in Cuban pesos and U.S. dollars.

Deus told Rest of World that less than 10% of the orders received from the company come from abroad.

Small or medium-sized companies like Mandao mostly run operative offices in Cuba, where they receive invoices and orders. After the order is fulfilled, they process payments through offices that have the same name but are legally registered outside of the country, usually in the U.S. or Europe. Mandao has an office in Havana but its website is registered in Coral Gables, Florida.

Martínez Hayes says the government appears to be less stringent with private online businesses like Mandao because it is eager to receive foreign currency. Cuban platforms based abroad allow them to receive electronic payments in foreign currencies — something forbidden for the regular brick-and-mortar businesses in Cuba that don’t have a permit to sell to tourists.

Cuba’s Ministry of Labor and Social Security bans small businesses from selling imported products, but that doesn’t stop other digital businesspeople from doing so. “As long as they have money outside of Cuba, any small business owner can bring whatever it wants into the country,” another employee of Home Deli, who asked to remain anonymous to protect her job, told Rest of World. 

“As long as they have money outside of Cuba, any small business owner can bring whatever it wants into the country.”

One of the largest e-commerce businesses catering to Cuba is Miami-based Katapulk, an online marketplace that delivers food, appliances, and other items to people in Cuba. It is owned by Hugo Cancio, a businessman who advocated for the thawing of relations between the U.S. and Cuba and who reportedly has ties to individuals within the Cuban government. Katapulk receives payments only in U.S. dollars or foreign currencies. Rest of World contacted Katapulk to request growth data, but the company declined to comment. According to its Facebook page, Katapulk was delivering only in Havana in December 2020 and added 12 provinces by October 2021. It currently offers deliveries in all of Cuba’s 15 provinces.

According to the anonymous Home Deli employee, Katapulk partnered with the brick-and-mortar company to market and distribute products under the Katapulk name. It is illegal in Cuba for small companies to sign contracts with any of these foreign platforms: since they’re legally established in the U.S., which holds an economic embargo against the island, the Cuban government is unable to tax or collect any of the money they rake in. “But everyone does it, following the example of platforms like Supermarket23, an online store,” the employee told Rest of World.

Supermarket23 is known as the Amazon equivalent in Cuba, offering up to 1,000 different products online,  many of which are not available in Cuban stores. The parent company was registered in Canada over 15 years ago and its Florida-based affiliate has links with Alcona, one of the state’s trading companies that’s managed by former Cuban army commander Guillermo García Frías. Many Cubans who live outside the island say they believe several other companies also have links with Cuban government officials.

Mariel, who lives in Miami and did not share her last name to protect her family in Cuba, told Rest of World that this is the case with CubaMax. “We send items to my grandma in Havana through CubaMax,” she said, “which is controlled by military leaders in Cuba. But the situation on the island is so bad that we don’t have any other choice.”

In early January, after being unable to find regular cooking oil in stores in Havana, the economist Hayes Martínez saw a three-liter bottle available on Katapulk — for a whopping $15. “That’s three times more expensive than what it costs in a store on the island,” he said.