El Paquete


Many web pages write about the wonders of El Paquete when discussing the Internet in Cuba. In contrast, this section will examine the intricacies of El Paquete, outlining important characteristics that have driven this service to revolutionize Cuban society in unimaginable ways.

El Paquete consists of a set of movies, newspapers, TV shows and series, telenovelas, music, offline websites, and offline versions of online magazines that are transferred from pen drive to pen drive, or hard drive to laptop, throughout Cuba. It costs only 2 CUC to update this information weekly or monthly, and these updates are aligned with the latest releases of worldwide TV series, like Game of Thrones, or Netflix series, like House of Cards.
The sharing network of El Paquete is a wonder in and of itself. Starting with the product’s marketing—since there is no public advertising of this service—the information about El Paquete is transmitted by word of mouth. In order to enjoy El Paquete, a consumer must have a network of friends, neighbors, and acquaintances who know the El Paquete manager in town. These local managers navigate the system and establish relationships with their clients to ensure high satisfaction rates from customers, as in a traditional business. Once the local manager knows a customer is interested in acquiring the service, he or she will come directly to the consumer’s house when it is convenient. This may often be after the end of the work day or on weekends, given that this is likely a secondary job for the local content manager.
In Viñales, a small farmer village and tourist destination west of Havana, it takes less than 10 minutes to contact the local El Paquete manager because of its small-town communication network. With only one phone call and 2 CUC, users receive the latest updates from western media directly to their computers or pen drives, providing them with unlimited entertainment. Often, the managers have so much data that they travel with a 1 Terabyte hard drive as well as additional memory sticks. Because patrons pay a set fee, they are not charged based on the amount of data they download from the manager’s hard drive. Thus, the managers carry all the data they have to offer in order to maximize entertainment and ensure happy customers.

How it works

In a country with almost no Internet access and only 5% of the population formally connected, Cubans have adapted to the limitations of their telecommunications infrastructure and have found ways to tap into global media. The weekly journey of El Paquete begins somewhere in the western world, presumably the United States. The content is uploaded to the cloud (to the Internet) to a special server that can be reached anywhere in the world but, most importantly, from Cuba. Then, local El Paquete managers are contracted from all over Cuba to disseminate the content to Cubans. Local El Paquete managers must meet only two requirements: one, they must have regular access to broadband Internet with a fast connection that can download the content as easily as the Cuban context allows, and two, some advanced knowledge of computer science or computer engineering. The first requirement is not easy to meet given that only foreigners, doctors, journalists, and government representatives are privileged to have in-home access. Some local El Paquete managers access broadband Internet through interpersonal connections, as, for example, a local manager in Viñales who borrows Internet from a foreign friend’s house to download the weekly content and most likely pays this friend a share of the profits.
Additionally, local managers need some kind of large memory drive, which usually costs up to 90 CUC. This represents a huge investment for any Cuban, given that the average monthly salary is around 20 CUC. Local El Paquete managers must pay 3 CUC per hour to connect to the server to download new content. Once content is downloaded, managers are free to resell El Paquete to whomever is interested. One local manager explained that he usually sells this content to 30 or 40 people a week, most of which are young Cubans. This means that, on average, managers receive 60 to 80 CUC per week. For an average Cuban earning an average government salary of 20 CUC per month, El Paquete is a good business to be in. Even in a bad week a manager can double his monthly salary in just one week. Thus, El Paquete not only represents an unprecedented way of transmitting digital information across the island, but is also a new source of income for many local managers all over a country where media has been 100% controlled by the government since the revolution.
Furthermore, El Paquete’s content is downloaded locally and on demand by the local content managers, who must understand the preferences of his/her client base in order to maximize the efficiency and profitability of his/her time downloading content. For example, a local manager in Viñales, explained that his clients prefer telenovelas from Colombia, whereas a local manager at the University of Havana said that the students are more interested in the latest episodes of Game of Thrones and The New York Times.
In addition, El Paquete has encouraged the promotion and creation of local content, such as online magazines and Revolico, the equivalent of eBay or CraigsList. Revolico is both an online and offline platform to sell and buy goods within Cuba. In practice, Revolico appears as just one more folder within El Paquete, which compiles all the advertisements from Cubans into an offline HTML format so that the information is accessible online and offline. (For more information, please visit the Offline Internet page.)
El Paquete is playing a significant role in the ongoing and unexpected transformation of Cuban society by supporting the creation of new spaces for free expression never before seen on the island. For the first time, there are photographers, graphic designers, independent bloggers, and writers creating online/offline magazines to talk about their interests, which have been prohibited up until now.

The question of legality

The legality of El Paquete is not as straightforward as one might think. El Paquete is neither legal nor illegal. The government simply tolerates it because a majority of Cubans pay for the service and speak openly about it in their communities. However, in an effort to maintain control over the situation, the government sometimes locates and threatens local managers with punishment for “breaking the law.” In response, the managers change their tactics, decrease their public presence, and restrict sales to trusted customers. However, no law establishes this activity as illegal, and until that changes, El Paquete will remain a permanent fixture in the Cuban society.

The future of El Paquete

The future of El Paquete is uncertain. The possibility of transitioning the service to an online platform is promising. However, this online business will have other implications that will require the transformation of more complicated systems within Cuba. For example, a discussion about intellectual property (IP) rights will have to take place between Cuba and the U.S. and other international contributors.

Conclusion

Cubans have created their own system for transferring digital information without the Internet. The ingenuity of the Cuban people in adapting to adversity and systemic limitations is wholly unique to the Cuban experience. Now that Cubans have greater access to the World Wide Web, it will be interesting to see their reaction to this new era of digital interconnectivity and what they will bring to the online world. However, one thing is certain, they will reinvent the Internet, adding some long awaited Cuban flavor to existing trends, software development, and conversations about the digital divide.


Written by: Mariela Machado Fantacchiotti
Edited by: Laura Lehman and Emily Sylvia
Video made by Emily Sylvia