Cuba: The Weekly Package. How Cubans deliver culture without internet.
Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting By: Kim Wall, June 19, 2017
In Havana’s late afternoon, when the heat had risen to more than ninety degrees, Maykel Molina Gutiérrez got off the bus in the posh neighborhood of Vedado, walked to an apartment building, and climbed six flights of stairs. Thirty-four with a hint of a beard, he kept a black backpack slung over his shoulder. By the time he reached the top, his T-shirt was drenched in sweat, and he used a corner to dab his forehead. He rang the doorbell—once, then twice.
No one answered. He pulled a beaten-up notepad out of his pocket and sighed. It would be a long night. The evening’s delivery list had sixteen names, scribbled in capital letters with black marker, and this was only his first stop on an eight-mile route.
Soon a man appeared on the landing, dressed in a white tank top and aviators. Using an iPhone (an illegal possession), he was texting his friend, Gutiérrez’s client, via Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (ETECSA), the national telecommunications provider. This was expensive, so the man paid for it by “living the life” (selling sex to tourists), he said, without looking up from his screen. After a few minutes, he got a ping. “She’s on her way.”
As if on cue, a woman ascended the stairs: a twenty-five-year-old model named Gladys Yenei Cisneros wearing a skintight polka-dot minidress. She had a gold nose ring and long black curls. Her girlfriend, a blonde in a pink jumpsuit, was in tow. Cisneros greeted Gutiérrez the Cuban way, with a kiss on the cheek. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him as the Package Guy, but regulars, as Cisneros was, called him Miguelito (“Little Maykel”).
She invited him into her living room, which was full of mahogany furniture. The others followed and lit cigarettes. Gutiérrez sank into a rocking chair, unzipped his backpack, and took out a crimson velvet pouch, which he had sewn himself to protect his product from Havana’s street dust. Cisneros traded for it with three singles—Cuban convertible pesos, a secondary legal currency pegged to the U.S. dollar and exchanged for all things desirable. She opened the parcel ceremoniously, tugging a string to reveal a hard drive. It weighed exactly 4.8 ounces, fit in the palm of her hand, and was the source of almost everything she knew about foreign culture.
Cisneros’s building had no internet connection—in Cuba, only apparatchiks and hackers could get online at home. But when she plugged the drive into her laptop, another world revealed itself, in folders within folders—containing MP3, AVI, JPEG, and PDF files—arranged in alphabetical order from “Antivirus” to “Trailers.” El Paquete Semanal (“The Weekly Package”), as the compilation is called, is part newsstand, part mixtape, part offline streaming service—a drive curated with magazine articles, Hollywood films, YouTube videos, phone apps, classified ads, and more. It has become the country’s largest private industry, reaching about half the population and generating at least $1.5 million a week. Underground hustlers keep the operation running with some 45,000 foot soldiers. Almost any media can be downloaded, though not quite everything; El Paquete producers scrub out politics, religion, and pornography, knowing what is likely to upset government censors—who, of course, receive drives of their own.
For years, the Castro regime held the nation at a technological standstill: The internet was banned, satellite television was illegal, and, largely because of the U.S. embargo, most computer software and hardware was prohibited. In 2009, the Obama Administration began allowing American telecommunications companies to conduct business in Cuba, and in 2013, Venezuela activated a fiber-optic cable between the countries. The government started to introduce Wi-Fi in public hot spots, but it has been a slow process. According to Freedom House, an internet-watchdog group, just 2 percent of Cuba’s 11 million people get online on a daily basis. Last December, ETECSA announced a pilot program to connect Cubans at home, though it has reached only a few hundred. The arrival of Netflix on the island, announced in 2015, has seemed as much a cruel joke as a P.R. stunt—in a place where the average monthly salary is $25 and online banking and international money transfers are blocked, who could supply the $7.99 monthly fee? People still depend on El Paquete. Gutiérrez believes that as the final step in its elaborate distribution chain, he brings enlightenment to Havana. “I am like Robin Hood,” he told me. “I take from the rich and give to the poor information.”
Cisneros looked at her screen and smiled, her perfectly applied lip gloss shining. She’d learned makeup techniques from tutorials produced by a vlogger in Miami. In this week’s package, she was delighted to find Keeping Up with the Kardashians, a relief from what was on Cubavisión, the state-sponsored six-channel network. At best, it showed old episodes of Friends and family-friendly Hollywood films, sometimes with the watermark of a pirate website or with interruptions from cinemagoers walking past the screen. Mostly, though, it was endless propaganda. “People want El Paquete because they want something different,” Gutiérrez said. “Because the television is shit.”
That night, Cisneros and her friends planned to use El Paquete to screen Caso Cerrado, a Telemundo court show about a Cuban-born American lawyer who arbitrates juicy marital and property disputes. While they watched, she would transfer another week’s worth of media consumption from the hard drive onto her computer. No one downloaded everything; there was simply too much.
Gutiérrez allowed his customers—“subscribers,” he called them—twenty-four hours to make their selections. By now, he’d learned their preferences intimately—which housewives liked Brazilian telenovelas and which wanted Colombian ones, who used Android apps and who had an Apple device, who followed which soccer team. Some used El Paquete’s programming to pass the time; others were Discovery Channel anthropologists; a few studied foreign languages. They put in requests when he made drop-offs.
After a while, Gutiérrez headed out to see other subscribers. They were Army officers, television anchors, sex workers—a cross section of Havana society—and all greeted him as a dear friend. I asked if there were any kinds of people that didn’t get El Paquete. He thought for a moment. “The Castros don’t need it,” he said. “They have satellite TV.”
The next week, Gutiérrez brought me along to pick up the hard drives where they were compiled. His boss and best friend, Alain Rodríguez Pacheco, opened the door of his apartment wearing Adidas from head to toe—T-shirt, shorts, slippers—and hurried us through a hallway into his bedroom. An air conditioner was blasting and the curtains were drawn, blocking out a tropical sunset. Pacheco’s skin looked pale in the glow of his computer monitor. He right-clicked to check the upload status of the drives: 957 gigabytes, almost there. Gutiérrez’s velvet pouches, now sitting on Pacheco’s desk, had been returned from their biweekly laundering—his mother washes them by hand.
Pacheco opened up shop in 2014 with five hard drives: made in Thailand, smuggled from the United States to Cuba in suitcases (undeclared or for a bribe) at a cost of a hundred American dollars, and then acquired on Havana’s black market. He hired Gutiérrez as his deliveryman, and the business flourished. Now they had forty-five clients, whose drives were loaded each week with files from USB sticks. When I asked Pacheco about the origins of the data, he flashed an enigmatic smile—even he didn’t know for sure, because in Cuba’s distinctly physical peer-to-peer sharing system, dealers had dealers, too.
There were three media houses in the business of collecting material, sifting through it, and dispensing files to mid-level sellers like Pacheco, who then marketed a slightly customized selection under their own brands. I heard several conspiracy theories about how this was possible, given the Cuban government’s severe censorship policies. Were master drives flown in from Miami? Maybe El Paquete was an opiate for the masses, created by the Castros to allow just enough illicit foreign culture. Some believed that it was all facilitated by the CIA as part of its never-ending quest to thwart the Revolution—not so outlandish, given that, in 2010, USAID covertly funded ZunZuneo, a Twitter-like service meant to stir up dissidence on the island. Pacheco and Gutiérrez didn’t wish to know more than they needed to.
They had become part of Cuba’s growing class of cuentapropistas (“the self-employed”), holding one job to earn the benefits of the socialist system and another to make real money. Their day had begun twelve hours earlier, when they clocked in as electricians earning twenty bucks a month at a brutalist office complex that had been built by Americans and reclaimed by revolutionaries. The guys worked the night shift and walked home together at dawn. Pacheco, laughing, showed me photos of Gutiérrez in the satin bomber jacket he liked to wear; he was slumped over at a desk, fast asleep.
Their side gig paid far better, and they split the profits evenly: forty dollars each per week. Since every neighborhood in Havana had at least one dealer, Pacheco—who catered to the Vedado and Centro Habana barrios—tried to beat the competition by placing an advertisement on Revolico, Cuba’s equivalent of Craigslist. (A cached version of the website was available on El Paquete.) His ad promised “professional service and the best Paquete,” since he always tried to include a high-definition blockbuster. That was a bit of a stretch, though, and Pacheco frequently received complaints about Gutiérrez, who was notoriously unreliable, rarely had phone credit, and tended to be oblivious to the norms of personal hygiene. What he lacked in presentation, however, he made up for in confidence in their product. “You sell milk, I sell milk,” he said. “But maybe I sell my milk with chocolate to get more clients. It’s the same with El Paquete.”
I watched as Pacheco set about assembling their Música Actualizada (“Latest Hits”) folder. He loved Taylor Swift, but she wouldn’t make the cut, as American pop consistently failed to break through Havana’s reggaeton fever. The dancy hooks blasted from cell phone speakers along the Malecón—the boulevard that lines the coast—and from vintage cars pimped out with Playboy stickers and LEDs. Pacheco hated reggaeton almost as much as the Cuban government did. (Orlando Vistel Columbié, the head of the Cuban Music Institute, dismissed it in a statement to Granma, the Communist Party newspaper, as “the poorest-quality music,” corrupting “the innate sensuality of the Cuban woman.”) But he and Gutiérrez prided themselves on giving people what they wanted.
Before the two became a business team, they had grown up together, so close that Gutiérrez could lean out his window and yell to Pacheco’s balcony. Phone cables linked their houses, in Centro Habana, the densest municipio in the city. Between their apartments was a chaotic street where flamboyant colectivo taxis flashed by. Vendors hawked American razors and deodorants from tables on the pavement.
The market for dealing foreign entertainment was booming when they were boys, during the Special Period that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union. Eighty percent of Cuba’s export and import industries vanished, and with that went the lifeline of the nation’s economy. Gutiérrez remembered the light of kerosene lamps during blackouts, streets lined with cars empty of fuel, school lunches of plain rice. His father left his mother, who worked in pest control; she was eight months pregnant at the time. Others joined a mass exodus on rafts and fishing boats from the shores of the capital toward the American dream.
For those who remained, necessities could be acquired by trading sex for shampoo and diapers. Gutiérrez, who dropped out of law school to help pay the family’s bills, believes that la lucha (“the struggle”) fueled Cuba’s desire for the escapism of movies. Before he got into El Paquete, he traded in VHS tapes and DVDs.
In 2012, Pacheco and his family left the old neighborhood and moved to a colonial mansion in a different part of Havana, with a powder-pink-and-blue balcony overlooking flame trees, on a street where the air wasn’t thick with unfiltered exhaust fumes. Pacheco’s brother, an attorney, had moved to Miami and sent money home; more than a million Cubans live abroad and do the same. “If you have a family member sending you a hundred dollars a month, you’re high-class,” Gutiérrez explained. Now a ten-minute walk and a growing income divide separated Pacheco from Gutiérrez, who had neither air-conditioning nor a private bedroom. He shared with one of his sisters, her boyfriend, and their toddler; the room had a ceiling so low that he could barely stand up straight. He also looked after his younger sister, Jasmine, now fourteen and already going out in hot pants. She had a way of pouting, wrapping her arms around his neck, and asking sweetly for cash to attend dancehall parties: “¿Un peso, por favor?” He could never say no.
The hours passed at Pacheco’s apartment as he waited on one last four-in-the-morning file delivery. Gutiérrez grew impatient. He decided to head home and come back for the drives later. I followed, and along the way, he pointed out handwritten cardboard signs in storefront windows, offering to fill USB sticks on the cheap.
We arrived at his building, and he led me up to his apartment, on the fifth floor. The place was dusty, and a floral armchair was so worn and grimy that it was sticky to the touch. The rest of his family was at work, so we had the place to ourselves. Gutiérrez grabbed a tub of dulce de leche ice cream from the freezer, fell sideways into the chair, and told me about his dating life. It was troubled—these days, he said, Cuban women cared only about money. He had been in love once, he claimed, with a fair-skinned diplomat’s daughter. He has brown skin—his ancestry is Spanish, Chinese, and African—and his girlfriend had been forbidden to see him again after he visited her at home. (“We send you to school and you bring home a black?” her father had yelled.) Now he was waiting for an epic romance, like in Titanic, his favorite movie, but he figured he would have to settle for less—“Only foreigners believe in love.” He went on, “Over there, you have the American dream. Well, here we have the Cuban dream: to marry a foreigner and get out.”
At the police station nearest to Gutiérrez’s home, which resembled a medieval stone castle and featured an exhibition on torture instruments, I met a detective who tried to explain to me El Paquete’s status. Young and slender, with doll-like eyelashes, he looked up from a handwritten testimony on his desk and gave me a wink. The truth was, he said, though it is officially illegal, no one treats it that way. He had been an occasional subscriber, he told me, and didn’t waste time with “political problems.” Besides, what was El Paquete if not an emblem of the island’s iconic resilience? “Cubans have a solution for everything,” he said. “Nobody is going to arrest you for buying El Paquete.”
For most of the time since El Paquete first appeared, in 2008, the Culture Ministry kept silent on the subject, even as Cubavisión openly discussed it. There was never a crackdown, nor were regulations imposed. Then, in October 2015, Abel Prieto, a former culture minister, told state media that “El Paquete has attractive and culturally legitimate offerings, but it also has some very mediocre content.” He added that it would not be “intelligent” to ban its distribution, and that producers should do more to build their audience.
There have been other indications that Cuban authorities are open to engaging with cyberspace. The Foreign Ministry tweets, and Miguel Díaz-Canel—the first vice president, who is expected to be the country’s next leader—is a frequent Facebook user and an advocate of expanding web access. “The development of information technology is essential to the search for new solutions to development problems,” he said during a speech in Mexico in 2014. “But the digital gap is also a reality among our countries, and between our countries and other countries, which we must overcome if we want to eliminate social and economic inequalities.” ETECSA’s recent expansion of broadband is the earliest glimpse of a strategy to get half of Cuba’s households online by 2020.
Does this mean that the nation’s era of tedious internet substitutes is coming to an end? Not really. Google offered to deliver high-speed Wi-Fi, but the regime has resisted. “We must have internet, but in our own way,” José Ramón Machado Ventura, the second secretary of the Communist Party, told Juventud Rebelde, a state-controlled youth news outlet, in 2015, “knowing that the intention of imperialism is to manage the internet as just another way to destroy the Revolution.” Díaz-Canel has made similarly alarmist remarks, accusing the United States of “aggression to ideologically subvert our youth” through “media, money, classes, trips, exchanges, and technology.”
America serves well as a scapegoat for Cuba’s failure to modernize; even though much of its infrastructure comes from China, the government insists that the absence of internet has been because of the U.S. embargo. Barack Obama began to open the gate, but Donald Trump has stirred fears of a diplomatic reversal. On the occasion of Fidel Castro’s death, last November, Trump tweeted, “Fidel Castro is dead!” Hours later, he released a statement: “Fidel Castro’s legacy is one of firing squads, theft, unimaginable suffering, poverty, and the denial of fundamental human rights.” That was followed by calls to review America’s Cuba policy and possibly “terminate the deal.”
While El Paquete has made consumption of foreign media mainstream, Cubans argue that—despite the Castros’ best attempts—they have never been completely insulated. Even during the height of the Cold War, Beatles records (illegal, imperialist propaganda) were smuggled inside the cover sleeves of regime-approved rumba bands, and American radio blasted from transistors hidden in flowerpots.
One morning, I met Elio Héctor “El Transporta2r” López, a twenty-eight-year-old who, more than a decade ago, built a pirated-TV empire with service transmitted from abroad via satellites that he’d concealed in the city’s ubiquitous blue water tanks. López, who wore torn denim shorts and gold bracelets, introduced himself as El Paquete’s cofounder. He tends to overstate his role, however—last year, a Paquete producer released a public statement dismissing him as a fraud—as these days he’s mainly a local music promoter whose acts appear in the catalogue. Yet he’s savvy and speaks some English, which has enabled him to pitch himself so persuasively to Americans that he has legitimately become an informal spokesperson for Cuba’s makeshift media.
I followed López through eastern Havana to a residential building where he unlocked a rusted gate and led me up to the roof. “On this side I have a monopoly,” he said, pointing north of the street. “I’m on top of the pyramid.” When he was fourteen, he told me, he climbed across apartment rooftops and into neighbors’ homes, looping cables that he camouflaged as regular antennas. Around that time, identical networks appeared throughout the city. Police went on raids, disconnecting the wires of entire barrios, but the connections would always get restored. “We would do it all over again,” López recalled. Government telecom clerks can now be bribed to install satellite cables underground, which means that almost every household in Havana with extra cash is able to subscribe to illicit television. Many of El Paquete’s shows, I learned from López and others, are pulled from these networks.
Authorities routinely try to stamp out the satellite system, since it’s a blatant violation of the law. “They can easily arrest us,” López said. “One day, they could wake up and finish El Paquete. They can do everything because they are the government.”
Yet he told me he was not surprised that the regime tolerated the distribution of the drives themselves, since, unlike satellite TV, they are sanitized of anything truly ideologically threatening. “It is convenient for the government,” he said. “People stay quiet with El Paquete. I think people would protest on the streets if it didn’t exist.”
Later, I asked Gutiérrez how he assessed the risks as a deliveryman. He shrugged. El Paquete is judicially invisible—“Está flotando en el aire” (“It is floating in the air”), he replied. “No one touches the Paquete guy.”
I walked a few blocks from López’s house, looking for the site of Cuba’s most influential media empire. The only visible enterprise was a vegetable stall, painted with dancing plantains and avocados. But next door, tucked in a turquoise and magenta cinder-block apartment building with no sign, I found the headquarters of Deltavisión, one of El Paquete’s three main production sites.
Inside were two desks, two computers, two employees, and one portrait of Che Guevara. Every surface was piled with hard drives—thirty-five in total—waiting to be filled, wrapped up, or sent out. Deltavisión operated under one of the government’s 200 private licenses—it is permitted under the “producers and sellers of CDs” category—and paid taxes. Most of the content that the company distributes is pirated media—the Castro regime proudly defies copyright regulations, and offers a federal license to bootleggers—but it hopes someday to pay royalties to artists.
Yino González, a lanky, soft-spoken producer with thin-framed glasses and silver hair, told me that he considered the company a facilitator, not a curator, of culture. “We don’t have time to watch anything,” he said. The selection process for material was mostly crowd-sourced through the intranet mail service provided by ETECSA. González let me have a look at the requests: A user named Harry wrote in wanting to “know everything about U.F.O.’s, and if possible abductions.” Aleilalen.97 asked to see “competitions involving strong dogs like pit bulls.” Marino52 sought “woodwork designs of closets, among others, and bathroom design.” Someone who went by ldd had an interest in “more about physical exercise, for abs and buttocks specifically.”
González felt compelled to provide educational files, he said, and devoted most of his attention to putting together a folder called Interesantes, which mixed Khan Academy tutorials with geography trivia and guides for rooftop gardening. Sometimes he pushed the boundary with political videos: A few months before my visit, he included television footage of President Obama’s trip to Cuba, which had aired only once on Cubavisión, during work hours. González, wary of the authorities viewing his files, said that he never included pornography, and he insisted—improbably—that no one ever asked for it. (Porn circulates anyway, on DVDs or via USB-stick exchanges on the street.)
That afternoon, González was busy adding Spanish subtitles to American TV shows using translation software. His colleague Danys Cabrera fast-forwarded through a National Geographic documentary, tapping his foot restlessly on a table leg. An ad break flashed on Cabrera’s screen: a woman in a minimalist kitchen pouring milk into breakfast cereal for a blond boy. This would have to be “Cubanized.” With a few clicks, Cabrera swapped in a promotion for a high-end restaurant in Havana—one of the new private establishments in town.
A motorcycle messenger entered, a middle-aged man wearing a fluorescent tank top. González pushed toward him a small cardboard parcel marked varadero; it would be handed over to a night-bus driver headed that way. The supply chain expanded out from there, into a meta-pirated sharing economy: Deltavisión has only about forty paying clients, but its content reaches as many as 2 million Cubans. A single subscription multiplies—not only among neighbors, friends, and family but also with middlemen cutting in to deliver drives even farther away, by boat, mule, or foot.
Western media has sometimes labeled El Paquete the Cuban Netflix, but González told me that Deltavisión’s catalogue (which features several Netflix original series) was much more extensive. El Paquete was pioneering, he explained, and when the internet became universally available—it was only a matter of time, he believed—he thought the company would be able to survive. There is value in the way that a human being selects programming that an algorithm could never quite replace. He hoped to collaborate with international streaming services as they arrived. Later, he would move into a new office.
González proudly showed me letters of appreciation that he’d received—hundreds of them—and told me that he planned to create an app to connect his fan club. “You get to know our tastes, and that gives Paquete a collective and an individual touch at the same time,” Midiala, a subscriber, wrote. “And we all have our little place inside El Paquete. Good luck and keep caring for us.”
Where Cuban internet exists, it is inescapably social. There are 353 public Wi-Fi hot spots in the nation, with fifty-three scattered around Havana, all operated—and surveilled—by ETECSA. In the mornings, I saw people lined up outside a local ETECSA office to stock up on log-in vouchers before they ran out. The vouchers, the size of a credit card, are sold in hourly increments, at 1.50 Cuban convertible pesos apiece, bringing millions in revenue to the government. Many users cover the cost using money sent from relatives living abroad, as they do for most expensive purchases.
At Parque Fe del Valle, the Wi-Fi hot spot closest to Gutiérrez’s home and the busiest of the capital’s open-air cybercafes, I saw people scratch their cards for a twelve-digit code and pray that the connection wouldn’t be unbearably slow. At sunrise, men in suits and women in pencil skirts could be found signing on before work. Some brought tables and chairs to set up makeshift desks for their laptops. Rush hour began when teenagers appeared after school, blasting hip-hop as they checked social media. In the evening, the square lit up with constellations of entire families gathered around a single device to video-chat with overseas relatives. Vendors sold empanadas and popcorn.
At all hours, plainclothes police officers—the only people not staring at a screen—drifted in and out, listening in on conversations and watching for hustlers offering vouchers secondhand. One such seller was Dominik, who had an accounting degree but had failed to land a job in the official sector. He charged three dollars per voucher; sometimes the price was higher for tourists. I found him seated on a park bench—his regular spot, he said—dodging the cops. The moment they looked away, he whispered, “Wi-Fi?” to passersby. “When you live inside a capsule, you only live each second, as if it were the last,” he told me. “The future does not exist.”
Back in Vedado, I encountered the next generation of tech talent at the University of Havana, another front line in Cuba’s quest for connectivity. The campus, designed in the Greek Revival style, looked like any top-tier institution in the United States, and it had recently been equipped with the nation’s fastest internet service. Still, students complained of the library’s old-fashioned card catalogue, and even members of the computer science department had bandwidth quotas—only several hundred megabytes per month.
Christian Rodríguez, an I.T. student, told me that the incentive to find “Cuban solutions” had made his peers globally competitive. I sat with him under a palm tree. “In fact, I think we are better, because we don’t have anything,” he said. “We don’t have internet; we don’t have access to all that information. And we still learn a lot.”
That day, though, he was annoyed: ETECSA had just fixed a glitch that had made hot spots easily hackable—via a simple scan and takeover of someone else’s I.P. address—for infinite surfing. He had not yet figured out how to bypass the patch. “I think the internet should be free for everyone,” he said.
Rodríguez’s classmate Juan José Roque joined us. “My dream is to be a hacker,” he told me. “There’s nothing we cannot do with a computer. They say that when you graduate from here, you’ll think you have superpowers. Modern superpowers.”
Above the quad, in a crowded communal office, I found Oscar Luis Vera Pérez, a young computer science professor wearing a sunset T-shirt. After decades of deprivation, he explained, Cubans had become natural hackers. He had his own tricks, he said: He downloaded course material at night, when the connection sped up; he brought a hard drive to conferences for physical file sharing; and he wrote wish lists for colleagues traveling abroad, who reveled in hotel Wi-Fi.
The University of Havana produces dozens of web developers each year. Many moonlight doing remote work for foreign companies, which rarely advertise that their websites were made in Cuba. Some get a ticket to Silicon Valley. And the cracks in the embargo had let in major American companies: With more than 8,000 listings, Cuba is Airbnb’s fastest-growing market. Google—which recently released a virtual-reality short film about José Martí, the poet known as the Apostle of the Revolution—was permitted to host servers on the island.
Other engineers have resolved to join Havana’s own small, vibrant startup scene, Azúcar Valley, built on breaking rules and taking shortcuts. A growing number of offices run on unauthorized internet, internet por la izquierda (“from the left”), which is funneled from government hot spots. Often, they receive informal permission, but at a cost—they must pay authorities a fee that can run as high as $700 per month. Using the latest (pirated) software, entrepreneurs have introduced a thriving ecosystem of offline apps for everything from restaurant recommendations to dick pics. There is even independent journalism, which gets distributed by El Paquete, with coverage of fashion, technology, and, at times, social justice stories that state-sponsored outlets could never print. Though the use of media to promote capitalism is prohibited, advertising agencies, which support those publications, are popping up. “Even with the small steps we’re making, lives of Cubans have changed a lot,” Pérez said.
One hack, StreetNet, better known as SNet, practically reinvents the internet altogether. Out of devotion to World of Warcraft, Havana’s gamers constructed a locally hosted intranet using a system similar to the one that López had set up for satellite television; it comprised a network of routers, nano-modems, and concealed cables. The interface was a clone of Mozilla Firefox, which made SNet look deceivingly authentic on a computer screen. It was an innovation befitting contemporary Cuban socialism: When the government imposed an hourly charge for the web, the people made it free. SNet physically links more than 20,000 households, and has snowballed into a portal for social media, chat rooms, and dating websites. It also offers endless file-sharing possibilities; Gutiérrez uploads El Paquete every week at no charge. The system depends on the attentiveness of nine council members, each of whom is responsible for a color-coded portion of the network’s map. Through phone chains, its guardians share weather reports to protect vulnerable equipment from storms. They also discuss other news, like rumors that have been circulating about ETECSA wanting to take over the infrastructure and catapult the SNet into Havana’s cyberspace, then on to the rest of the world. But the gamers were ambivalent toward the real internet, they told me, skeptical of the anonymous trolls, the bullying, and the consequences of its sheer vastness.
As more workarounds have emerged, outsiders have begun to notice Cuba’s technological ingenuity. In March, a delegation of entrepreneurs was invited to the SXSW conference, in Austin, to talk about how Havana could inspire offline networks for aircrafts, cruise ships, and other places where internet is limited. They called such innovations “Cuban Solutions,” and used the tagline, “The world is more offline than you think.”
One evening, as rain fell over Havana, Gutiérrez brought me to meet his favorite subscriber: the only girl who went straight for the “Manga” folder. We huddled under an umbrella below her balcony. He called up to her, Paloma Ordunez Pérez, a.k.a. Miss Otaku (a nickname that referred to her obsession with Japanese nerd culture). Sometimes she lowered a tote bag on a rope for Gutiérrez to drop El Paquete into—in Havana, anything can, and does, change hands at street level—but that night she invited him up, tossing her house keys onto the wet cobblestones.
Pérez was sixteen, with waist-long hair that she’d dyed lilac with gentian violet, an antiseptic that has been used since the 1890s to treat parasites and skin conditions. (Until recently, the embargo restricted shipments of modern medication and beauty products.) “She looks just like Asuna,” Gutiérrez said. He was alluding to the heroine of Sword Art Online, an anime series about a shy high school student who digitizes herself to become a valiant warrior princess in virtual realities.
Pérez greeted us at the door wearing flip-flops and pajama shorts, smiling demurely. We entered her living room, where she had plugged El Paquete into the USB port of a flatscreen sitting precariously on a wine box. Gutiérrez took a seat on a leather sofa beside Pérez’s boyfriend, who was heavily tattooed and watching Food Wars, a Japanese anime cooking show. Lily, a fat dachshund-Pekingese mix, jumped on Gutiérrez’s lap as Pérez’s grandmother, who had a blond bob and wore a silky red nightgown, brought us homemade caramel pudding.
Pérez’s was a classic colonial-era apartment on Calle de Amargura (“Bitterness Street”). When Cuba was under Spanish rule, women sold themselves around this neighborhood, and the sex trade has continued. Prostitution is a way to afford the imported products that one discovers through El Paquete—Adidas sneakers, Colgate toothpaste, smartphones—and it’s almost as widespread as it was during pre-Revolutionary times. Gutiérrez had received propositions, he told me. He wondered if the things on his hard drives had set something tragic in motion, leading people into sex work to buy a piece of the cosmopolitanism they saw.
Pérez had nothing to do with that world, but she had other worries about what the future might bring. “If we have internet at home,” she mused, “we don’t go out for many, many months or years.”
She leaned over the balcony railing and called to her best friend, who lived across the alley: “Come over!” Minutes later, Melany Rodríguez Gómez appeared in the living room. She looked as if she had stepped out of a manga, with two long blond pigtails, black lace shorts, a miniature backpack, and giggling mannerisms borrowed from Japan, where she had never been. At the weekly gatherings of Havana’s Anime Appreciation Society, she became the character Kagamine Rin, posing for pictures with dozens of other teens. They met up in a ritzy hotel, where they were surrounded by salsa-dancing tourists drunk on mojitos.
Pérez darted into her room, which was painted mint-green and orange and plastered with Hunger Games, Avril Lavigne, and One Direction posters. There was a small desk with a computer that had never connected to the internet. She returned holding up her Asuna battle outfit: a white polyester crop top with a red bow and a long, tight skirt, fashioned by her grandmother, who had also designed a plastic sword. “We lack the resources to make cosplay as it should be made,” she said. Then she corrected herself. “Well, we lack the resources but we manage to do it anyway.”
She played the theme song of one of her favorite anime shows on her phone, and Gutiérrez filmed as the two girls sang along. “It’s a beautiful world,” Pérez said. When she stepped into manga mode, she grew taller, her back straighter. She had confidence. After she and Gomez finished their performance, Gutiérrez shared the video with them over Bluetooth.
It was almost midnight, and Gutiérrez had to get going. As we walked out, he told me something about the thrilling possibilities offered by El Paquete. The idea sounded awfully familiar, though it was entirely new to him. “It’s a hard drive full of dreams,” he explained. “Without taking any plane, without the money or other things, people can travel to any part of the world in just a moment.”
Kim Wall, Grantee
Kim Wall is an independent journalist writing about identity, social justice and foreign policy. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Harpers, The Guardian,…
Surfing the Cuban web is logistically challenging, prohibitively expensive, and rarely private. Ranked as one of the world’s least connected countries, Cuba operates under a censorship model different from, say, China’s: instead of blocking Internet content outright, the privilege is made ultra-scarce, available only at designated (and surveilled) Wifi hotspots at $2 per hour—and highly profitable for the Castro regime.
Yet, thanks to the extraordinary creativity—and rebelliousness—of Cuba’s well-educated, but underemployed, millennials, the island was never entirely closed off. Pioneered by an army of hackers, hustlers and pirates, two separate underground networks allow Cubans to watch ‘Game of Thrones’ and download smartphone apps, as well as shopping, dating and playing ‘World of Warcraft’ online.
Here, as much as elsewhere, the Internet is equal parts escapism and business opportunity, and Cuba’s restrictions have unleashed defiant innovation, embodied by La Red de La Calle (“the net of the street”): a home-made network, functioning as a de-facto miniature internet, with chatrooms, dating portals, and social networks. Then there is ‘El Paquete Semanal’ (“the weekly package”): a 1-TB hard drive of curated Youtube videos, news, telenovelas and Hollywood films, delivered to households nationwide.
Reporting from Havana on the nascent online culture of a Cuba in transition, journalist Kim Wall tells the story of the nation’s defiance in importing, delivering, and creating culture.