This article was originally published in the Spring 2016 issue.
By Maya Averbuch
The green jalopy that stopped on the corner of Neptune Street was on its way out of Old Havana. The owner of the shared taxi—known as an almendrón—extended his hand for a few pesos. We took off toward my apartment near a string of ritzy hotels in the Vedado neighborhood, leaving the cobblestoned plazas behind us. But as the springs of my seat creaked, I heard a familiar beat: Pharrell Williams’ “Happy” was playing on a video screen on the dashboard. How had an decades-old car started to blast the soundtrack of Despicable Me 2? “USB,” the owner replied.
Less than a third of Cubans have internet access, so most people cannot download the latest radio hits. The American music that plays from burger joints to clubhouses can be shared by bluetooth or flash drive, and can be purchased all over the country from shops that sell pirated CDs. Over the past decade, Cubans have scaled up this one-on-one sharing into a nationwide business network, all for a single entertainment product: the weekly package.
“El paquete semanal” is the name Cubans have cheekily given to the terabyte of pirated TV shows, music, movies, video games, magazines, and software updates that seem to appear magically on the black market at the start of each week. The contest is neatly organized in electronic folders. You can call a number from Revolico, a Craigslist-like advertisements page, to set up a weekly delivery of an updated hard-drive with the package’s organized folders, or you can walk to a local kiosk to request your favorite shows on a USB drive. If you’re short on cash, you can ask for the most recent UEFA Championship game, or the last episode of Game of Thrones. For just $2, you can buy the entire terabyte.
Long before Diplo came to Cuba, long before Obama strolled its streets, I traveled to Cuba to follow the package’s trail. According to news reports, the content comes from illegal satellite and internet connections. Businesses in Havana, the package’s original production center, send the terabyte to provinces across the country. The major distribution centers in each province deliver it to small-scale providers. Only a third of people actually buy the package, according to a study by the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television. The rest don’t pay a cent. They get a USB from friends or family, then share what they like. Though the study estimated that at least 40 percent of Havana’s uses some portion of the package, there are no published statistics on how many people do so in the rest of the country.
“The package reaches thousands and thousands of people—grandmothers, children. But how can you measure something that’s not institutionalized?” asked Marita Pérez Díaz, a reporter at the bilingual news site OnCuba.
The paquete industry involves thousands of salesmen who operate without proper permits and tiptoe around the government by leaving out pornography and government criticism. (The government provides licenses to independent business owners, but you cannot register as a salesman of “the package.”) As the popularity of the product has grown over the past decade, people with recording equipment and Internet access have made their own competing versions. They combine material from various packages and rename the folders, aiming to win over local clientele with their offerings.
The American casts that appear in the package have formed a strange set of ambassadors. While I was in my rented room in Havana on July 20, 2015, news broke that the U.S. and Cuba would resume diplomatic relations. Over the television set’s furious buzzing, commentators announced that the U.S. Interests Section would become an embassy. At the time of the celebratory announcement, 138 flagstaffs stood in the deserted plaza outside the building like abandoned fishbones—the leftovers of an angry sea creature that were never washed away. A statue of the independence fighter Jose Martí pointed at the building, standing above a plaque that reads: “The United States, which seems destined by Providence to plague America with misery in the name of freedom.”
The state maintains control over the press, the radio, and the television channels, but as it permits the expansion of private business, it is also concerned about the proliferation of trashy foreign media. Each year, fewer people see theater, dance, and film at the government’s capacious performance arenas, though most charge little more than a dollar for entry. Smaller, too, are the audiences watching the government-run TV channels, though almost every single family owns a television. People are instead looking through the tiny packet of capitalist media that lands at their door each week.
“Since the triumph of the revolution, the state has kept watch on cultural practices for an educational purpose, to give people certain values,” said Dean Luis Reyes, a film professor at the International School of Film and Television, in San Antonio de los Baños, Cuba. “The package is basically a form of resistance to this logic, the logic of control over people, of what they should watch and what they shouldn’t.”
As I traveled from the provinces of Piñar del Río in the west to Guantánamo in the east, asking about the package, many Cubans laughed. It was as though I had gone to Los Angeles and announced that I wanted to study the popularity of YouTube. But I was determined to trace the package’s route, starting with the consumers who had bought it, and looking for the Cubans who had sent it.
“The good part,” said Alejandro Gomez, 34-year-old film and photography editor in Havana, “is that it fits everyone’s tastes. Even though ninety percent of it is trash.”
Seated on a chair in his walk-up apartment, Gomez pointed to a flat-screen television that takes up most of one living room wall. He’d been buying the package for four years, partly because he’s a documentary nerd (most recently, he’d watched Werner Herzog’s Into the Abyss). On any package, you’ll find an eclectic mix: beauty pageants, the latest chefs’ cook-off, cartoons for kids, and the ever-popular Casos Cerrados, a Spanish-language version of Judge Judy. As we talked, he scrolled through folders on his computer, showing me the latest collection.
Sometimes he gets less popular content, like clips of the performance artist Marina Abramovic or songs by LCD Soundsystem. But, Gomez warned, the package is not like the unregulated Internet. “The packet is the illusion of freedom of choice,” he said.
If this interview had occurred several years earlier, Gomez would probably have been watching one of the government-run TV channels when I walked in. In the 1960s, the country was one of the first countries in Latin America to experiment with color broadcasting. Fidel Castro used to deliver hours-long speeches to homes across the country via television. “In Cuba, television has never been considered just entertainment,” Reyes said.
The U.S. embargo put into place in 1960 and the economic hardship of the Special Period during the 1990s delayed the country’s technological development. The government has tried to catch up in the last ten years, two channels became five, and ones that had previously ended at midnight extended through the morning hours. But these changes have not been enough to compete with the black market.
VHS was the first electronic threat to the government. VHS players appeared in Cuba in the mid-1980s, smuggled in on boats and planes, and people procured movies at clandestine VHS banks. The only people who had VHS players at home were upper-class or had family abroad. For years, kids in the neighborhood would to gather in their homes to watch rented movies, Reyes said. After Raúl Castro formally took over in 2008, the government allowed for the sale of cellphones, computers, and DVD players. When the paquete came on the scene sometime in the mid-2000s, people were ready to plug it in.
I picked up a copy of the official Communist Party newspaper Granma to see to what extent the government had added its neighbor’s shows to its own smorgasbord. On the page with the evening TV schedule, Hollywood seemed to have staked its ground, though the government doesn’t pay American companies a cent for its screenings. I could settle down with “Men, Women, and Children,” a documentary about the way the Internet ruins people’s lives, or “Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift.” Cubavisión would be pandering to a different crowd, with the collection of Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Woody Allen shorts in “New York Stories.”
Gomez told me that these days, “people don’t watch Cuban television anymore.” Gomez’s explanation is that people can get far more from the package, even shows that cross into political territory. Gomez told me he follows The Colbert Report, which appears in English without subtitles. Sometimes, he catches an episode of David Letterman or Jimmy Fallon, Ellen DeGeneres or Jimmy Kimmel.
When José Raúl Concepción Llanes, a student in the University of Havana’s journalism program, surveyed fifty people between 16 and 30 in Havana, few had given up national TV entirely. But half said they watched it less than they had before the package came into their lives. Even with half-dozen theaters around the corner, in entertainment districts like the Plaza de la Revolución, people preferred the package.
The package can be considered an affront to America’s intellectual property laws. “From a Marxist critique, copyright and piracy are elements in opposition, because the former results in a hegemonic legal institution that converts information into a form of capital,” Cinthya Cabrera Tejera, a graduate of the University of Havana’s journalism program, wrote in her thesis. “Piracy can be seen as a space to escape and subvert control.” But it’s hard to imagine that this is not a dangerous anti-capitalist gamble.
When I asked an elderly man in the plaza in Trinidad, one of Cuba’s historic cities, if he carried a flash drive, he pulled an 8 GB stick out from under his shirt. He’d had trouble keeping track of them in the past, so he started to wear one like a necklace.
If people could watch exactly what they wanted, whenever they wanted, why wouldn’t they?
The needle-thin conductors in Yoel Sanchez’s* palm zig-zag across the back of an internal hard drive. It looks like a miniature utopic city, the roadways lined up with a mastermind’s precision. Sanchez keeps the drive in a hard plastic case in a leather satchel, to protect it as he travels from one house to another. He’s one of the small-scale distributors of the package, someone who will deliver it to your home by foot.
Sanchez gets it segunda mano, or second hand, after his distributor added some of Sunday’s shows and put in subtitles for English-language content. If he had tried to buy it on Friday before dawn, when the newest version of the package is released, he would have had to fork over at least $15. But Sanchez isn’t in a rush, and the price drops steadily over the weekend. When he picks it up on Monday at 3 p.m., it only costs a couple of bucks, so he can easily make a profit.
Sanchez bought his first computer in 2012. At the time, the going rate for a used machine was $270. It was a high price for someone who had just quit school after four years studying biology, but his family chipped in. His father can catch war movies from the package when he gets back from his construction job at the end of the day. His sister can watch singing competition, such as La Voz—especially the kid’s version from the U.S.-based company Telemundo. His mother, who retired early due to back problems, still prefers watching the shows on TV.
Sanchez wasn’t planning on going into the messenger business. He entered a nursing program right after high school and kept at it for several years. “I’d wanted to be a doctor since I was a kid,” he said. Later he dropped out, because he was rattled by working with patients. He spent a few years trying to salvage the career by studying biology. Education was free, but after realizing he was approaching thirty without a promising job, he quit.
He tried working at the national bank. He tried working as a government employee in the administrative office of the port. He made ends meet by giving salsa lessons to the tourists who fluttered around Old Havana. He worked for a friend in the paquete business for eight months, then launched his own service in 2012, after saving enough money for his own hard drive.
When business is good, he manages to deliver to fifteen or twenty people in a week. Nowadays, he’s sometimes down to ten. But he still average about $25 each week, the same as a month’s salary from the government. “The package is what gives me los frijoles” he said. In other words, it puts dinner on the table each week. Specifically, America’s Got Talent, So You Think You Can Dance, Supernatural, The Vampire Diaries, and an American telenovela called El Señor de los Cielos cover his bills.
Sanchez is a curious case by the metrics of the Cuban government. He dances the quick-footed casino, a traditional form of dance. But he also sells a product that Abel Prieto, the former culture minister, has publicly critiqued.
After the revolution, Cuba prided itself on making “high culture” performances cheap for even the average citizen. “In New York, nobody would think that that in the Latino neighborhoods, like in Washington Heights, that the Dominicans and others would go to Broadway. In Cuba, the state politics make it so that people of any income level could attend,” said Reyes, the film professor. “It’s absurd what it costs to see Giselle, or Swan Lake, or see a performance of the most important theater troupe in Cuba.”
But the dynamics of public life are changing. Salaries are low, and when the temperature is high, people choose to sit at home rather than pay for a bus to go to the run-down theaters on the other side of town. The first evening I went to a movie, an Adam Sandler comedy about a magical shoemaker, a dozen old men lined the rows in front of me, one seat between each of them. It was, without a doubt, an aging crowd.
“For the Cuban state, it is dangerous, because, according to them, if Cubans consume more foreign products, their ideology, their adherence to the system, their culture and identity as a nation can be threatened,” said Gustavo Arcos Fernández-Britto, a film professor at the University of Arts of Cuba. “Sex and the City, which seems frivolous and promotes the style of life of the New York middle class, or upper-middle class, has nothing to do with the expectations that the government wants to promote.”
The government has tried to compete directly with the package by making an educational alternative: Mi Mochila. It translates literally to “My Backpack,” and any kid can get a copy for free at one of the government-run youth clubs, which provide students with free internet access. Mi Mochila is like the package but with more national content. At the youth club where I request a copy, the employee takes it out of a lock-box that was shipped across the country.
There were a few of the same series as on the regular package, and a meager offering of international film and music. Chris Brown and the Bee Gees, for example, made an appearance in the music folder. There was also a massive digitized collection of literature: the ninety-one authors in the “A” folder include Adolf Hitler, Agatha Christie, Albert Einstein, Alejo Carpentier, Arthur Rimbaud, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Isabel Allende.
But for consumers who aren’t looking for a library, Mi Mochila is the smaller, less dynamic sibling of the package—without a vast network of entrepreneurs fighting for its success.
Outside a garage in the eastern city of Santiago de Cuba, at the end of a workday in July, dozens of people lined up with USB sticks in hand. Petrol cans lay on one side of the garage, and old computers whirred in the back of the space. A young man with a gold chain and a pair of angel wings printed on the back of his t-shirt called up customers one at a time. The wild summer carnival had just ended, and as Santiago returned to its normal pace of life, people were ready for their weekly dose of foreign media.
More than one source had told me this was the place where a package from one of the better-known Havana distributors is delivered to Cuba’s second-largest city. Every few days, hard drives come by plane from Havana, and messengers pick them up at the airport for delivery. The drivers of buses, or wa-was, that transport the package across the country, are paid for their service. They ensure that the packages people across the country receive are up to date.
The prices can be higher in Santiago de Cuba. A source, who asked to remain anonymous, said that for the weeks he worked as a distributor, he paid $30 on Saturday for the package, and then helped a friend sell it to over three hundred clients over the course of the week. He said that at this garage, the man at the computer was a cabeza, one of the “heads” who coordinated the distribution of the package all over Santiago de Cuba
It was a Tuesday night, and there was a steady stream of customers. On the shelves against the wall, dozens of hard drives were stacked on top of one another, their USB cords hanging over the edge like a tease for anyone who wanted to take a peek inside. A few of us sat on stools near the back, waiting to speak to the man who was loading shows onto USBs. He had short-cropped hair and clicked rapidly through all the folders on his screen. People asked him for advice and told him what they liked. They trusted him to make suggestions.
A girl with a tank and small yellow shorts cracked up as the man played a video. Another asked for an action series and he recommended a Korean program. When another woman said she’d like to see Perfume: The Story of a Murder, someone on a stool behind her leaned forward and said, “My dad was reading that book! But he stopped when the movie came out on the package.”
They waited outside the garage, talking on the phone while their flash drives loaded. The multiple USB ports on the computer were enough to cut the wait to a few minutes. One, two, three, four people went by, and I waved them ahead of me, until the young man in the angel wings t-shirt finally stepped away from his computer. He walked out of the garage and asked what I wanted. He was polite, but told me only basic information: the first package was only about 50 GB. Most of the material comes from Havana. The data comes from satellite grabs and the internet, accessed through hotels or ETECSA, the state telecommunications company.
Was he a cabeza, as multiple sources had informed me? He grinned impishly and shook his head. “You’re probably an American spy,” he joked. He looked at my t-shirt and cotton skirt. “And we thought they’d send someone with a tie.”
Only one person has publicly stated that he makes the package: Elio Héctor López. He’s known as El Transportador, and he runs a casa matriz, where a team purchases the content for the package and organizes it into a final product.
He also claims to be one of the package’s inventors.
A source who knew López gave me his cellphone number. When I called to speak with him, he told me to find him Central Havana, an elegant but run-down part of the city. When I met him in his home, an apartment with high ceilings and beautifully tiled grey and red floors, a toddler wandered around the small room next to two loading computers.
The way López tells it, the invention of the package was a fluke. Nine years ago, he was working as a party planner and DJ, and the music lists he made started to become famous. Before he knew it, people beyond his neighborhood were asking for his content, and his distribution escalated from there.
Back then, he was a local legend. Today, he’s become a spokesperson for the package on Cuban television, and he’s been featured in Forbes as a Cuban tech giant.
López said he and his team were never trying to transform Cuba. They were strictly in it for the business. “We’re not at all interested in the country’s politics,” he told me at his home. Wearing Nike sneakers and a blue collared t-shirt, he could easily pass as a Silicon Valley type, but never as one of Cuba’s biggest business entrepreneurs.
He insisted that it was impossible for him to know how many people receive his product, or to confirm OnCuba’s estimate that the proceeds reach four million dollars per month, since, unlike a more official businessman, he wasn’t getting a cut from each small sale. He said that he sends the package to about seventy cabezas across the provinces, and they pay his team for the service. As for how many people receive his product? It’s anyone’s guess.
López is an anomaly. The owner of another supposed casa matriz, who told me that his team of six people has made its own package since 2013, said he also sends his product to distributors in the provinces. But he didn’t want his name known. “I’m not interested in being famous,” he said.
Still, López safeguards the details of his business. He told me that his music comes from sites that you can subscribe to for a monthly fee, and that his providers’ satellite connection is legal.
The people who download the package’s contents for the matriz generally work at places with high-speed internet, like businesses or embassies, or have managed to become some of the few Cubans with Internet connections at home, explained Cabrera, the student from the University of Havana. Each person is in charge of one part of the package: one gets all the manga for the week, another get all the documentaries. Though the majority are in Havana, others are in the neighboring province of Matanzas. Intermediaries put together the data from disparate sources, organize it rapidly, and sell it to a matriz. “It’s slavery,” López said of his work. “I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.”
Other companies also have their hand in turning the package into a business hub. ETRES, a company started by graphic design students, has essentially become Cuba’s first advertising agency. The company places advertisements at the ends of videos in the package, or as pop-ups in the middle of shows. Reinaldo Martínez*, one of the founders, tells me that their biggest clients are photography businesses for quinceaneras. he said. “Businesses need a brand, an identity,” he told me. Robin Pedraja, who founded Cuba’s first independent culture magazine, told me he modeled his product on Rolling Stone. It is also filled with advertisements, like any glossy American magazine.
López dreams big about where the package could go. If U.S. companies want to advertise, he said he would work with them. But for now, he’s already got his hands full trying to keep the package circulating every day of the year. It’s not what he expected when he started putting together music tracks, but he can’t quit now.
The hard drive I sat down with when I returned to my apartment is a mish-mash of everything the Internet and television have to offer.
Oscar winners got the top of the list, with folders for Beasts of the Southern Wild, Frozen River, Michael Clayton, and Silver Linings Playbook. There were other American heroes below: Wonder Woman, Silver Surfer and Witchblade, X Men, or for those who prefer animations, Ninja Turtles, Transformers, and Garfield.
A folder called “!!! !!Tecnológia 2015+ +” with instructional videos from Spain about the latest smartphone backup battery. The humor folder included what you might find if you went digging through YouTube, from “2 years old girl Youngest Rubik’s Cube Solver – 70 seconds” to “Scared First Time Skydiver, Must See!” to a FailArmy video: “Best Fails of the Week”
Yet the biggest threat to the package is its source: the Internet. Cuba has started to expand internet services, offering 24-hour WiFi access on major streets. You still have to line up at booths of the government telecommunications company, ETECSA, to buy a Wifi card for $2 per hour, and you get the sense that browsing does not go unscrutinized. If you read the Terms and Conditions, you will find a security note: “USERS will use the provided services, in accordance with the ethical and moral principles regulated in the current legislation, without prejudice to public security, integrity, economy and national independence.”
These concerns have not stopped people from crowding around screens to get air time. On 23rd Street in mid-summer, people sat on the stairs of the Pabellón, a local art space; they sat on the concrete platform near the bus stop; they found some extra sidewalk space to call family abroad through Internet apps. If the price of this service drops, and if Internet is eventually offered in people’s homes at an affordable price, the package will probably disappear.
For now, the Cuban Internet is the package. In the weekly edition I purchased, there were 106 telenovelas, sixty-seven software updates, forty-eight trailers, thirty-four reality shows, thirty computer wallpapers, thirty TV competitions, twenty-four manga episodes, seventeen kinds of sports, and nineteen complete albums of international singers.
“The politicians in Cuba are trying to create a new world, but there are limits,” the critic Victor Fowler told me. “When you come to Cuba, you realize that in no moment has the Cuban government been able to prevent some portion of cultural consumption coming from the United States.”
While perusing all the tiny blue folders on my computer, I imagined people across the island doing the same, opening windows for drama, for humor, for anti-viral software and colorful wallpaper—whatever else the world has to offer.
*Names with an asterisk have been changed.
Maya Averbuch is a senior Humanities major in Berkeley College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.