Huddled around a laptop at the bottom of a stairwell in Havana, a group of three teenage boys banter as they skip between video clips and music. A fourth arrives with some ice cream, which completes a scene reminiscent of teenagers killing time on YouTube. They play an amateur music video in which the singer, looking for a laugh, periodically bangs his head against the wall. Then Beyoncé. Chris Brown.
But this being Cuba–where the Internet is, for the most part, only available at some professional jobs, in foreigners’ homes, and in expensive hotels–this isn’t YouTube. What looks like a few teenagers surfing the web is actually a small part of an only-in-Cuba business that gives locals access to content from the Internet, offline, thanks to an army of human middlemen and thousands of flash drives.
I pass my own small drive to the boy who owns the computer, and he asks me what I want. He scrolls through the little blue files on his desktop, which have labels like “movies,” “music,” “videos from Cuba,” “applications,” and “video games.” After I ask for videos from Cuban artists, he plugs my drive into his computer and asks me to come back in 10 minutes.
There are similar booths that sell El Paquete Semanal (“the packet of the week”) across Havana. Some are run casually, like this one. Others are part of more formal businesses, with signage and separate store space, that also offer services like printing or software updates. But everyone, from the young waiters at restaurants to the lawyer who rents me his home, seems to have a source for El Paquete, their link to a connected world that would be taken for granted in most modern countries. A retired woman who plugs her flash drive into her television recommends that I watch Mr. and Mrs. Smith. My taxi driver plays local music videos from a portable player mounted on his dashboard. And when I meet with the founder of a company that functions like a Yelp for Cuba, he peppers his stories with Game of Thrones references. All of them are getting access to this media either by purchasing content from an El Paquete vendor, or by copying from the computer of a friend who has purchased it.
In a country where the government, as per the constitution, owns all media, El Paquete allows Cuban people to access content that would never be found on official media outlets, even if it’s nothing more subversive than the latest episode of House of Cards. It is not a static library of files, but a weekly updated resource that includes some of the same living resources that you might find on the Internet.
One local app available on El Paquete, called Revolico, for instance, works like an offline Craigslist, with people posting ads for furniture, jobs, and homes. Another, AlaMesa, is a directory of about 600 restaurants, some of which pay to add extras like menus or special offers to their listings. Another, Conoce Cuba, is a guide app with GPS-enabled maps. Local magazines, like a richly designed music and culture publication called Vistar, also release new issues on the platform. “In Cuba, there are a lot of new artists with a lot of talent, and they never had something like this to show what they do,” says its creative director, a 28-year-old graphic designer named Robin Pedraja. “Before us, this would happen and nobody knew.” The publication has more than 20 people in its masthead and is working on its 16th issue.
“All media was the property of the state before,” says Elaine Diaz, a journalism professor at the University of Havana who is launching a publication called Periodismo Del Barrio (Neighborhood Journalism) that she plans to distribute through El Paquete. “Now we have underground ways to publish and you don’t need permission.”
This underground publication system operates in a legal grey area, though the government has for the most part tolerated El Paquete. And though using El Paquete as a platform may not require permission, it does require some centralization.
Where El Paquete comes from and how it is distributed has been something of a mystery in Cuba. When I asked technology entrepreneurs and El Paquete vendors how it works, I got answers like, “It’s an urban legend” and “Who knows?” El Paquete vendors have sources who have sources. David Mas, who worked on a publication about Cuban businesses called EnlaHabana that was distributed through El Paquete (it has since closed) described the way the business is structured as “like drugs,” in which case the name that one of its top distributors goes by, El Transportador (The Conveyor), seems appropriate.
His real name, it turns out, is Elio Hector Lopez, and he’s a 26-year-old with a passion for music who started working on what became El Paquete while employed by a bank. At first, he used the Internet access at his job to download music, and he gave what was essentially a mix tape of his best picks to local DJs in the area. As it became popular, he started to charge for the music, and, he tells me through a translator when I meet him one Sunday morning at a Havana café, “What began as a hobby became serious.”
Around 2008, Lopez started to get in touch with other people who had started similar businesses with different types of content–video games, movies, video clips, TV shows–and they decided to collaborate to make a bigger business. Their first collaborative packets were about 500 GB and included a tiny text file with an email address inside that people could use to make requests for the next week’s El Paquete. Then Lopez and his partners would look for it. “It was like doing a Ph.D. in Internet to find this stuff,” Lopez says.
He won’t say exactly how the group currently acquires the 1 terabyte of new content that he says it sells to seven top-level vendors every week, except that part of it involves an illegal capture of a satellite channel and another several paid collaborators with Internet access (according to Internet freedom watchdog Freedom House, between 5% and 26% of Cubans have access to the open Internet, or access to Internet not controlled by the government). The hard drives travel via bus or plane to major Cuban cities, where their purchasers sell copies of the content to other vendors, who sell it to other vendors, and so on down the line until some slice of the original terabyte reaches the stairwell where I purchase about 16GB for the equivalent of U.S. $2.00. The system does bear a structural resemblance to an illicit drug business.
But even though Lopez and his partners have created what is arguably the most accessible open media consumption channel in Cuba, they aren’t getting rich doing so. They sell each of the seven primary hard drives for $20 or less. It may seem crazy to sell such an influential product for so little–until you remember that many media companies, including this website, give their content away for free.
El Paquete operates on the same business model. It’s not just a way to access content that Cuba’s nationalized media outlets don’t provide; it is also an advertising business that depends on wide distribution.
For a fee, Lopez and his partners will post an advertisement at the end of a popular movie or television show. They will also include your music or your magazine (Vistar doesn’t pay because Lopez is its “coordinator & promoter”). Lopez says this advertising business makes about as much money as selling the content itself, and there are similar businesses further down the chain. If you want an advertisement for your restaurant or salon on your local version of El Paquete, some local distributors also sell advertising services.
None of this–the publications, the advertising businesses, or El Paquete itself–is expressly legal. Cubans need licenses to do private business in the country, and Lopez’s license is for selling hard drives. But the government probably won’t shut it down. “It is stupid to prohibit it,” says Carlos Alzugaray Treto, a professor and former Cuban diplomat. “You don’t have a way of doing it. You will have to deploy so many resources to stop it from happening. That’s impossible.” Lopez offers another explanation. “If they shut down the package in the whole country, people will be mad and it won’t be good for the government.” In order to avoid antagonizing the government, El Paquete has a strict rule that bans politics and pornography.
What might ultimately be more threatening than the government to the web of small businesses on El Paquete is the Internet. Cuba’s government announced recently that it would open 35 public Wi-Fi hotpots that Cubans can access for about $2 per hour. That’s still well beyond the reach of most Cubans, who earn on average the equivalent of $20 per month, but it signifies a new willingness of the government to tolerate the Internet. If the Internet becomes more widely available in Cuba, what becomes of the business under the stairs? To the Craigslists and the Yelps of Cuba? To magazines like Vistar?
“The packet will disappear,” says Lopez. But he believes the rest of his business, and businesses like it, can move online. Some, like Vistar, which publishes online, have already started. AlaMesa, Revolico, and Conoce Cuba have websites in addition to the apps they publish in El Paquete. And Lopez hopes that, with the Internet, El Paquete itself will remain an advertising channel, “like YouTube.”