Logo The Fabulist

El Paquete

Messy computers, cables and hardware
  • By Joshua Jelly-Schapiro
  • Issue 21
  • EssentialDecember 2017

It was about five years ago in Havana that I first heard about it: El paquete, “the package.” People invoked it in whispers. “I’m waiting on the package.” “This week’s package—it’s coming soon.” “My package guy, he’s good.” These lines were murmured by housewives hanging laundry and by old men playing dominoes, who were not above emphasizing the double entendre. But the package was also talked up by young men loitering at bus stops and by bright-nailed girls who ignored them to chat of el paquete among themselves. Was the whole city fiending for some potent new dope, or caught up in pushing it? Cuba has remained blessedly free of a violent drug trade, and of most intoxicants worth abusing, other than rum. So that wasn’t it. Everyone takes part in the shadow economy here, but usually that means striding down alleyways with cash to score plastic bags full of powdered milk or shrimp. This package, in a society whose four TV channels are run by the state and where decent Internet access remains out of reach for most people, involved something more desired than even drugs or sex.

El paquete refers to a weekly compilation of digital entertainment—Brazilian telenovelas and Hollywood films, Spanish gossip mags and music videos from Miami—loaded onto USB drives and distributed across the city, and from there to all of Cuba. In the years since it first hit Havana, it has become the main means by which Cubans access the world of media beyond the official communiqués and dry mesas redondas broadcast by their ruling party. Whether you’re a fan of Gossip Girl or of watching Cristiano Ronaldo pout and score, el paquete is likely how you get your fix.

El paquete has become such a pervasive part of Cuban life that it’s not whispered about anymore—it’s out in the open. But as with all gray-market commodities involving complex supply chains, unseen dons, and striving middlemen, it’s a product after whose origin most people know not to ask. Every Monday here, a full terabyte of data lands with distributors in Havana—to download the full package, when it’s new, costs $17 cash—and is then copied and recopied by dealers further down the chain, who cut it into smaller pieces tailored to their clients’ likes, which they sell on flash drives for a dollar or two. One rumor pegs the bedroom of a twentysomething Habanero called Dany as el paquete’s weekly landing point; another names a guy called Ali as jefe. Some say that these digital barons hide high-speed satellite Internet receivers in plastic water tanks on their roofs; others say content arrives by more old-fashioned means—on hard drives packed in the carry-ons of cronies arriving on one or another of the dozens of daily flights now coming here again from Miami.

The final steps see the data sold from doorways or delivered to people’s houses by boys on bicycles or on foot, in provincial towns from Santiago to Camagüey, to be plugged into hand-me-down laptops or Korean TVs brought as gifts by kids or siblings during a visit from Miami. It’s a distribution network that has become, according to believable estimates, the largest employer in Cuba that is not owned by the state.

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Not that anyone knows for sure. The slow opening of Cuba’s economy has in recent years allowed a variety of private enterprises to take root. But licenses granted to citizens called cuentapropistas are purposed for sole proprietors: people now allowed, whether by opening a café or operating a CD-burning business in their garage, to make money outside the bounds of an official economy that still provides all Cubans with beans but little else. Allowing cuentapropistas to operate is one thing; it would be quite another to legitimize what amounts to an international digital-piracy syndicate, centered in Havana but with operatives, based abroad, who supply the mysterious kingpins with content such as Selma, the Ava DuVernay film about Martin Luther King Jr., which a friend showed me in his Havana apartment the same week it came out in New York and L.A. My friend’s version, fresh from the paquete he’d just copped down the block, featured the occasional bobbing head in silhouette at the bottom of the original cinema screen. More notably, it also featured decent Spanish subtitles, rendered in what must have been record time by a downstream associate.

Not all el paquete’s films are shot in theaters: those that didn’t come out last week are hi-res MP4s ripped from iTunes or a DVD. Such tidy reliability is one reason many Cubans suspect that Raúl Castro’s minions don’t merely tolerate el paquete but are involved, if not in its production then at least in its profits: Who but someone with significant political connections has a world-class Internet hookup? Whether or not state actors are involved, the package’s lack of pornography (in line with a strict government prohibition)and of the doggedly anti-Castro Miami Herald among the newspapers it includes, has a plain reason: staying on the right side of power.

In Vedado, the neighborhood where I’ve long stayed in Havana, the past two years have brought significant shifts to the ways that people remain in touch with the wider world, and where they do so. In the early 2000s, the neighborhood’s many parks were filled with familiar sights: kids playing soccer, potbellied parents talking shit, lovers canoodling on benches or lying in the patchy grass. Now at least three of those parks fill, as night falls, with another sight as well: people huddled around the glowing screens of cell phones or tablets. Crouching near a telephone pole mounted with a white plastic router fifteen feet up, they’re Face-Timing with cousins or checking Feisbu (Facebook)—or trying to, anyway.

Since 2014, Cuba’s government has addressed a burgeoning frustration from a populace newly in possession of iPhones but with no way to get online (unless they could spend unthinkable amounts of money to do so in hotels for tourists) by setting up Wi-Fi hotspots in public squares across the country: some 175 in all. But attempting to check email at one of these hotspots—whose Wi-Fi signal costs two dollars an hour to access, still a hefty sum here—can as often result in listless waiting. Every email sent to Cuba still reaches the island through a single wire to Venezuela, the island’s bandwidth relying on telecom infrastructure dominated by copper wire and little changed since the 1950s. The speed with which pages load also isn’t helped, at individual hotspots, by the fact that many of the youngsters sitting in packs on the curb have installed apps, on their phones, that allow one of them to log on to the local network and then grant tethering access to to six other devices. Using the Internet here more often amounts to a frustrating sip of its offerings than to a satisfying gulp perhaps helps explain why the package’s offerings increasingly include not just content from afar but stuff produced and meant to be circulated in Cuba.

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Last winter in Havana, I asked a young man of my acquaintance young man who’d kept a friend of mine well supplied, for months, with the episodes of Transparent and broadcasts of Grand Slam tennis she liked watching on an old Dell laptop—whether he could show me the full contents of the package that week. Yuri, as my friend’s paquete guy was called, was in his early twenties and wore the elaborate hairdo and testy confidence of many young people here who have received good educations from a society that furnishes few ways to use them. Yuri, who had a degree in physics, led me through a stucco garage, its walls lined with bootleg DVDs in plastic sleeves rather than jewel cases, to where a friend sat staring at a big black computer. His friend got up to let him sit down instead, and I asked Yuri whether there were jobs in physics here. He replied by pointing at the screen.

The interface was nothing more advanced than Windows 95: a blinking screen of dozens of folders, each labeled with its contents, expanding to hundreds if you scrolled up and down. All the TV shows and magazines were there; so were simple archived versions of Wikipedia and a recent copy, compiled through hundreds of screenshots, of revolico.com: the “Cuban Craigslist,” which features listings for apartments and washing machines, and sometimes want-ads for extras in foreign films being shot locally movies. “Far more people get revolico.com this way than online,” Yuri explained. “When we have the Internet, it will be better—but for now, we have this.”

As a sometime refugee from the overdeveloped world, I’m not sure he’s right about things getting better. I’ve grown only more attached to Cuba, not less, by the fact that one doesn’t walk around here with the Internet in one’s pocket. If you still need proof that a day without Twitter remains a better day than one with it, this is the place for you. Now wasn’t the time, though, to discuss the digital world’s capacity for degrading social skills or reshaping public spheres. My friend around the corner was waiting on some tennis: Federer and Nadal had played a big match at the Australian Open the day before. She still didn’t know who won, and she’d made me promise not to tell if I heard. Onto a flash drive it went. Yuri went to make the delivery.

Joshua Jelly-Schapiro is an American geographer and writer. He is the author of Island People: The Caribbean and the World, out now in paperback, and the co-editor, with the writer Rebecca Solnit, of Nonstop Metropolis: A New York City Atlas.

“Santa Clara (1Berto Dj)” (2016), by Julia Weist and Nestor Siré. The exhibition 17.(SEPT) [By WeistSiréPC]™, a collaboration between Weist and Siré, is on view at the Queens Museum until February 18th, 2018.
Courtesy the artists and Queens Museum