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Paquete: Cuba’s black market, DIY internet

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In my short time in this country, what’s surprised me the most is the constant duality of life here. Everything in Cuba has two stories: what the government sees, and reality.

Information is Cuba’s secret third currency, and things that I can easily access at home are sold on the black market here, through a series of under the table negotiations.

What sets Cuba apart from other black markets, however, is the simple fact that the whole country is in on the secret.

I am most intrigued by media access. Only 3% of the country has Internet access, and what is available is priced by the hour in hotels and is usually censored through proxies, or limited to hotel guests (Current price of Wi-Fi: $2/hour, down from $4 or $5).

Because of this, Cubans are more likely to use the Internet to video chat with family and friends abroad than to read up on the news.

Like everything else, the government controls the newspapers and television channels, so news articles are tame and shy from the truth, and usually end with a gratuitous “Thanks to the Revolution”, or “viva Cuba”, etc.

The day after Pope Francis came to Cuba, I read a New York Times article about his meeting with Fidel (complete with photos), but I was shocked when my host parents told me Cuban news didn’t even mention the meeting, and that there was a rumor Fidel was dead, because he hasn’t been seen in years.

International news is limited to a short column and is highly biased, and foreign movies come to theatres months after their cultural relevance has waned. Everyone knows they aren’t getting the whole story.

One afternoon, my host mom, Sofia, told me, “I love my country, but I’m not going to believe that the sky is green just because the government tells me it is,” which, as I’ve seen, isn’t an unusual perspective.

I noticed that Cubans are remarkably up to date on international media, TV, and music, and when I asked Sofia how this was possible, she laughed and explained to me the ingenious paquete.

When Sofia first told me about the paquete, or package, I was in absolute awe. Essentially, all the media and information that the rest of the world accesses through the Internet is (illegally) downloaded onto memorias (flash drives) once a week, and distributed in alleys and back doors throughout the entire country for two or three CUCs/dollars (on the pricey side for Cubans, but worth it). This means movies, television shows, new music, music videos, news, phone apps, and books are all downloaded and packaged up for cheap distribution. The other thing: it’s absolutely enormous. Each week’s paquete is a terabyte worth of information, and people can download one gigabyte or the whole thing for the same price. There are magazines that only exist in the paquete, which Sofia tells me are well written and informative about culture and world affairs. People advertise their businesses, apps, and companies through embedded advertisements in the paquete files. Private businesses only became legal a few years ago in Cuba, and advertising is basically nonexistent.

Billboards and TV ads alike are all government propaganda, so the paquete is a widespread and reliable way for business-owners (like my host dad, who runs a computer repair workshop) to advertise. For instance, Sofi told me about a new phone app that’s more or less the Cuban version of Yelp. It runs offline and has changed the way Cubans look for bakeries, restaurants, stores and businesses. A selection of old movies is included every week, but documentaries, reality shows, foreign films of all kinds, and current TV programs are commonplace. Ev- ery year, an updated version of Wikipedia is put on the paquete, and Cuban university students are encouraged by professors to use it to research their papers (shocking to hear, isn’t it?).

I am most interested by the sheer enormity of the operation. An underground business like this is way too big for the government not to know about (it’s weird for someone not to know about it), so why don’t they do anything to stop it? The business is run by a huge network of people, both in the U.S. and in Cuba, and it’s incredibly fast. A new episode of a television show could air in the U.S. on Tuesday night, and it would be all over Cuba by Wednesday. By now, the operation is so streamlined it’s become part of daily life, and if something isn’t in the paquete, it’s on someone else’s computer, or in a pirated DVD store, or somewhere on the streets of Havana. Although it’s completely illegal in every sense of the word, it’s ubiquitous, and doesn’t appear to be stopping any time soon. Even if the embargo drops, Internet access becomes more common, infrastructure develops, and things like Netflix come to Cuba, why would anyone want to pay for media when something as easy, all encompassing, and cheap as the paquete already exists? How would it even be stopped? People assume that Cuba is isolated, and in many respects, it is, but the paquete is proof that people will always be able to find information, regardless of attempts to repress it.

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