Cuban migrants turn to an unusual market for boat parts: Facebook
When Amauri decided to leave Cuba for the United States, he bought metal sheets to build a rustic boat to take him to the Florida Keys.
But when Amauri, who asked that his last name not be used for fear of retaliation from the Cuban government, decided to abandon the idea, he did what many on the island looking to resell their things do: He put the metal plates for sale on Facebook.
“Buyers appear there more easily than looking for them directly on the street,” said Amauri, who has sold about 20 metal sheets to people looking to build homemade vessels.
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In a country where construction materials are expensive and hard to find, Cubans are using Facebook to find building supplies for U.S.-bound homemade boats. On an ecosystem of so-called “balsero” groups — named after the rafters who left the island for the U.S. in 1994, and a moniker those who have come since sometimes use — there are listings for buying or selling GPS navigation systems, metal drums, propellers, motors, lifejackets and more.
Some posts go as far as attempting to arrange illegal migrant voyages, or advertising full packages with most, if not all, of the materials needed to build a boat. The online transactions are a digital reflection of the mass exodus by sea and by land that Cuba is experiencing as conditions on the island deteriorate. Last month alone, thousands of Cubans took to sea to reach the Florida Keys, littering the shores with makeshift boats.
Ariel, another Cuban man who asked that his last name not be used, has built about a dozen homemade boats since the first time he tried to leave the country nearly two decades ago.
He sells leftover materials he doesn’t use, such as compasses, screws, propellers and wooden oars on Facebook. In one post from December, he offered two propellers in exchange for a smartphone. But Ariel said he has purchased more building materials than he has sold on the groups. On one occasion, he traveled to the central-western city of Pinar del Rio to buy two car batteries for use on boats.
“It is the only communication that we have to sell, assemble, to do everything,” he told the Miami Herald.
A spokesperson for Meta, the tech giant that owns Facebook, Whatsapp and Instagram, confirmed that the company had disabled several balsero groups after an internal investigation concluded they were against the company’s human exploitation policies.
Meta prohibits human trafficking on its platforms. It revamped its human smuggling policies in December and also offers guidance on how to report it on its website. The spokesperson said that the company works with external groups, such as the International Organization for Migration, to create policies and resources that not only support migrants escaping unsafe conditions but also bar smuggling off its networks.
Meta users can talk about migration and the right to asylum, according to the spokesperson, as well as express that they want to migrate to another country and leave difficult and dangerous circumstances. But any posts looking to leave illegally through smugglers will be eliminated and users will receive resources about the risks and signs of human trafficking as well as about pathways to legal migration, the Meta spokesperson said.
Experts who spoke to the Herald said the buying and selling of construction materials on social media points to the expansion of Wi-Fi and digital services and the rise in independent businesses in Cuba amid a rise in sea migration to the U.S.
“Things that used to be taboo, or even illegal or repressed, are kind of now out in the open, showing us the level of desperation, but also showing us that Cubans have enough access to the internet where this will be one of the go-to places to try to solve this problem,” said Theodore Henken, a professor at Baruch College’s Sociology and Anthropology Department who has written several books on Cuba.
Henken said Facebook is a “one-stop shopping place” in Cuba and universally used by those with internet access on the island. Internet usage in Cuba has exploded in the last five years, propelled by the launch of 3G mobile internet in December 2018.
The government has cracked down on activists and influencers on social media, including during the famous anti-government protests in July 2021. It also has laws limiting speech on social media. But the professor believes the buying and selling of materials are a reflection of how Cubans are pushing against government restrictions.
“It indicates where Cuba is right now, in terms of just a crisis of people desperate to leave, but also things that used to be prohibited are now de facto tolerated, if not legitimized or legal,” said Henken.
Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute at Florida International University, described the online groups as “a new way of organizing migration,” enabled partly by the rise in self-employed, non-state workers.
“There are people who have realized that there is a demand for construction materials and they are making it commercial,” he said.
Amauri said he knows of people who sell completed vessels on the social platform. Beyond materials for building boats, he said that Facebook has become a hub in Cuba for selling everything from cars to food. He once needed yogurt for his family but was unable to find any in the store. He bought it on Facebook instead.
“It’s become a business for Cubans because it’s the only place you can get money reselling,” he said.
Leaving Cuba illegally or organizing such a trip is punishable by prison time and fines in the country’s new legal code, enacted in December. But experts say the open online dialogue around illegal sea migration could point to less consistent penalties for Cubans who fail to reach the U.S. by sea.
“We are talking about a country where there is no rule of law. They can impose it today and stop imposing it tomorrow,” said Sebastian Arcos, an associate director at the FIU Institute who spent a year in jail in 1982 after Cuban authorities caught him trying to leave Cuba by boat.
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Among the members of the Facebook groups are migrants who have already left Cuba by boat, Cubans who are planning illegal voyages, and the loved ones of Cuban migrant boat passengers who have left but are presumed missing at sea. Meta disabled several following a Herald inquiry about the groups.
The groups are also forums for questions Cubans have about U.S. immigration policy and how to use a GPS device. One group is explicit in its purpose, with a description that says it is for the “sale of rustic vessels.”
Posters dole out building advice, (“Make a box for the motor and cover it so no water gets in”), weather developments, (“Do not go. There is a cold front on the way”), encouragement (“Let’s build and go out in victory to the lands of freedom”), and updates about who made it to the Florida Keys and who was caught at sea and put on a U.S. Coast Guard ship.
One user asked the “most advisable” Florida Key to aim for to reach the United States.
“Marquesa esta muy quemado,” she said. The Marquesas Keys are “burned,” or overused.
Often, family members of Cubans who have vanished in the sea post photos of their loved ones — ominous reminders of the dangers of the illegal journeys. But the groups are also respites of humor in the face of desperation. One member joked that there needed to be traffic lights on the ocean.
Members use coded, although not subtle, language on their posts, calling boats in construction “proyectos,” or projects. “Salir a pescar” — or going fishing — is common code for migrating to the United States.
Some people are looking to trade everything they have in exchange for a one-way voyage to the United States.
“I’m trading my house for a safe and fast fishing trip,” wrote another man from the city of Cardenas on Jan. 3 in another now-defunct forum.
The groups are also rife with fake and or relatively new profiles. Both Ariel and Amauri said that those accounts often belong to scammers — or police officers. But Cubans, like Ariel, also use them to hide their identities to evade trouble with authorities.
Members call out suspicious-looking posts as scams, or share accounts that they say have ripped off people looking for trips or materials. Issues that raise red flags: newer accounts, or those that appear to use fake names and photographs in their profiles.
“I don’t respond to fake profiles,” said Amauri.
Ariel is in the process of building another homemade boat. He found materials and four passengers on Facebook. Getting supplies is often painstaking and costly. But the thought of giving his family a better life sends him back to the water on rickety wooden vessels time and time again. And through the platform, he’s been able to get what he needs.
“Thanks to Facebook, many people are now living in the United States,” Ariel said.
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