What do you do when there's no reliable Internet?

    How resourceful Cubans get their Netflix

    By Russell Cobb on March 24, 2018

    I’ve tucked into an alleyway in Old Havana looking for shelter from a downpour, content to wait out the storm under a crumbling balcony. No point checking my phone. Data is both extremely slow and very expensive in Cuba. As I wait, something catches my eye: a placard for a store selling phone cards. Cuba has the lowest Internet penetration of any country in the Western Hemisphere, and I have been looking for something called el Paquete Semanal, or “the Weekly Package.” The Package provides a hand-curated collection of thousands of movies, YouTube videos, magazines and songs every week for the equivalent of one dollar, all downloadable from a memory stick. I realize this store might be where I finally find the Package.

    I walk down the alley, away from the brightly coloured façades of touristy Obispo Street and deeper into a warren of apartments made from cement blocks and rusty sheet metal. I find the store, a little shop in a living room, where a woman is working a dusty ’90s-era Dell computer, printing jobs from USB sticks and selling phone cards. This is very exciting. I know the Package comes on USB flash drives. Maybe this woman is a distributor.

    I’ve had a fascination with Cuba since I was a student in the United States. Ten years since my first visit, I’ve come back as a Canadian academic to research how a burgeoning, but underground, Internet is changing Cuban society. I’m also laying the groundwork for a spring course on Cuban myths and realities for U of A students in spring 2018.

    I feel nervous asking the woman about the Package. None of her clients mentions it as I lurk around. The Package is classified as “alegal.” Not necessarily illegal, but not legal, either. Unlegal. Frustrated, I abandon the shop. If the Package can’t be found in a shop run by a tech-savvy young woman a dark alley in the middle of Havana, I guess I will never find it.

    A few days later, on the other end of the island in Santiago, I take a chance asking about the Package. This time, I ask a young academic from the Universidad de Oriente in Santiago de Cuba. “You want to see el Paquete?” he asks, excitedly. “Wait here.” (Due to the hazy legal boundaries of the Package, the professor asked that I not use his name).

    I wait in the lobby of Santiago’s main tourist hotel, the Meliá Santiago de Cuba. The hotel is crawling with security. The professor re-emerges with a MacBook. He plugs in a USB stick and voila. “Look,” he says in a whisper. “I have everything here. Cuban films from the 1960s. American reality shows. National Geographic. Playboy.”

    It’s hard to overstate how much the Package has transformed social life in Cuba. People have started to hover around their laptops, rather than talk over coffee or drinks. This might sound commonplace, but it’s taking place in a country where, officially, there are only a handful of legally sanctioned media outlets. More interesting still, there is no mention of el Paquete in the Cuban media. It is everywhere and nowhere.

    Bismarck Garcia, ’16 BA, has been studying Cuban music and literature for years. He first heard about the Package in 2015 during his studies in Cuba as a U of A undergraduate student in modern languages and cultural studies. “We were debating what movie to go see,” he says. “Someone said, ‘Let’s just get el Paquete and see what’s available.’ I was, like, ‘What Paquete are you talking about?’” The USB stick was plugged in and a whole universe of media appeared.

    How the Package gets to its neighbourhood distributors is a mystery. There are many theories and little evidence. A recent piece in Wired suggested that files are downloaded by government officials, the only people on the island with access to bandwidth high enough to manage all the content. Garcia thinks it might be visitors to the island, who bring in content from Miami. Others believe individual Cubans are downloading the content from the painfully slow WiFi networks in public parks. Some have even speculated it’s part of a CIA plot to destabilize the regime. “Nobody knows how it gets in the country,” Garcia says.

    Zaira Zarza Blanco sees el Paquete as a manifestation of the Cuban art of self-sufficiency and creativity in times of scarcity. Zarza Blanco is a postdoctoral fellow at U of A whose research focuses on how Cuban artists and filmmakers are using new media to navigate a changing social reality. After decades of subsidies from the communist bloc, Cuba found itself alone in the early 1990s. The United States tightened its embargo shortly after that, but ordinary Cubans found a way to make do. Urban farming, upcycling and repurposing are all a part of everyday life, she says. Across the island, people cut up old vinyl records and attach them to dryer motors to make fans. There is a special class of motorbike — the rikimbili — that is a bicycle with motors of one sort or another (including boat motors) attached. “To be creative and self-sufficient has become one of the few options Cubans have to deal with the geographical and political isolation,” Zarza Blanco wrote in 2017 in an article in Studies in Spanish & Latin American Cinemas. This worldview can be summarized in the Cuban Spanish verb resolver, something akin to a hack, or a making-do.

    Given Cubans’ new reliance on the Package, many intellectuals worry that media saturation will eventually lead to a banalization of local culture and decrease the country’s famous resourcefulness. These sound like First World problems to someone who has spent an entire sticky day pounding the pavement to procure an international phone card or print out a few pages to read at a conference, as I did last May. Then again, finding workarounds on this gorgeous island of fascinating people becomes a minor thrill in itself, one that leads to new friendships and new discoveries in unmapped Havana alleyways. That’s not something you’re likely to encounter on a screen.

    Russell Cobb is a writer and academic at the University of Alberta, where he is an associate professor of Latin American Studies in the Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies. His work bridges the worlds of creative nonfiction with the digital humanities. He spends his downtime playing basketball and spinning vinyl.

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