HAVANA (AP) — In the Telegram group chat, the messages roll in like waves.
"I need liquid ibuprofen and acetaminophen, please," wrote one user. "It's urgent, it's for my 10-month-old baby."
Others offer medicine brought from outside of Cuba, adding, "Write to me in a direct message." Emoji-speckled lists offer antibiotics, pregnancy tests, vitamins, rash creams and more.
The group message, which includes 170,000 people, is just one of many that have flourished in recent years in Cuba alongside an exponential increase in internet usage on the communist-governed island.
The informal sale of everything from eggs to car parts – the country's so-called black market – is a time-honored practice in crisis-stricken Cuba, where access to the most basic items such as milk, chicken, medicine and cleaning products has always been limited. The market is technically illegal, but the extent of illegality, in official eyes, can vary by the sort of items sold and how they were obtained.
Before the internet, such exchanges took place "through your contacts, your neighbors, your local community," said Ricardo Torres, a Cuban and economics fellow at American University in Washington. "But now, through the internet, you get to reach out to an entire province."
With shortages and economic turmoil at the worst they've been in years, the online marketplace "has exploded," Torres said.
Bustling WhatsApp groups discuss the informal exchange rate, which provides more pesos per dollar or euro than the official bank rate.
Meanwhile, Cuba's versions of Craigslist — sites such as Revolico, the island's first digital buying-and-selling tool — advertise everything from electric bicycles brought in from other countries to "capitalist apartments" in Havana's wealthy districts.
Many products are sold in pesos, but higher-priced items are often listed in dollars, with payments either handled in cash or through bank transfers outside the country.
While wealthier Cubans — or those with families sending money from abroad — can afford more lavish items, many basic items remain unaffordable for people like Leonardo, a state-employed engineer who asked that his real name not be used because he fears retribution from the government.
Three months ago, Leonardo began buying items such as inhalers, antibiotics and rash creams from friends arriving from other countries, then reselling them for a small profit online. Government authorities are harshly critical of such "revendedores," or resellers, especially those who buy products in Cuban stores then sell them at a higher price.
In late October, President Miguel Díaz-Canel called for a crackdown on the practice, referring to the revendedores as "criminals, swindlers, riffraff, the lazy and the corrupt."
"What we can't allow is that those who don't work, don't contribute and break the law earn more and have more opportunities to live well than those who actually contribute," he said during a meeting with government officials. "If we did that … we'd be breaking the concepts of socialism."
But Leonardo said he and others like him are just trying to get by.
"This medicine goes to the people who need it, people who have respiratory issues," he said. "Those who use them are people who really need them. ... More than anything else, we sell antibiotics."
With the money he's earned from his sales, Leonardo has been able to buy soap and food, as well as antibiotics and vitamins for his elderly parents.
The rise of the new digital marketplaces speaks to a specific brand of creative resilience that Cubans have developed during decades of economic turmoil. Much of the crisis is a result of the U.S. government's six-decade trade embargo on the island, but critics say it's also due to government mismanagement of the economy and reluctance to embrace the private sector.