By Julissa Soriano
A year or so ago, media-content starved Cubans suddenly gained access to a rich trove of entertainment, including American television shows like The Walking Dead, House of Cards and Scandal; Caso Cerrado, a popular Spanish version of Judge Judy, and popular telenovelas from Latin America.
The shows were not the result of new programming on Cuban television, which is controlled by the government.
Rather, they came courtesy of El Paquete (the package, in Spanish), an underground system that distributes digital content each week to Cubans who have access to computers. Technically part of the black market, it is tolerated by the authorities. Perhaps that’s because it does not provide politically controversial references.
El Paquete is released every Monday, with one terabyte of files, the equivalent of about 300 hours of high-quality video. Typically it is distributed via computer storage devices or flash drives. Some people, known as “compilers,” take the massive package and divide its content into different categories, and sell customized packages based on viewer’s interests.
Among the places that people can buy El Paquete are local copy centers. It is typically priced at one CUC, or Convertible Cuban Peso, which is equal to about $1. On Tuesdays, it costs 75 cents in CUC, and the price decreases throughout the week.
“We have not seen a week where there is no Paquete,” said Alvaro Perez, 28, head of the audiovisual department at the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba, a nongovernmental, nonprofit cultural organization funded by the Peter and Irene Ludwig Foundation in Aachen, Germany.
Besides television shows, the package contains films, trailers, software downloads, video games, documentaries, music, publications and phone applications for Androids and Apple phones, which are brought to Cuba from abroad.
Recently, the Ludwig Foundation of Cuba was asked by the Cuban government to review El Paquete. The foundation recommended that rather than crack down on El Paquete distribution, it develop a high-brow version of El Paquete that will include cultural programming.
Internet access is extremely limited in Cuba. Marc Frank, the author of Cuba Revelations, said only 4-5 percent of Cubans have access to the Internet. The Central Intelligence Agency says Cuba’s Internet connectivity ranks 154 among the world’s nations.
But El Paquete requires no Internet to be viewed – just to be created.
Where it gets its content is not known. Perez speculates that the people, or person, creating El Paquete has access to broadband, probably at a government office. Universities, Internet cafes and some hotels have Internet.
But wherever it comes from, El Paquete is sold each week across the entire island within 24 hours.
Carlos Alzugaray, 71, a Cuban diplomat and professor at the University of Havana, said his students brought him El Paquete.
In Cuba the government controls broadcast media, operating four national television networks, six radio networks, and a variety of local radio stations.
Many Cubans complain that government-controlled programming is boring, uninformative and predictable. This is where El Paquete comes in. While El Paquete content is bootlegged, its revenues come from Cuban advertisers. Licensed cuentrapropistas (entrepreneurs) and illegal businesses that operate without the necessary government licenses advertise on El Paquete. Advertising itself has only recently begun to be legalized in Cuba.
Not everyone sees El Paquete as a benefit. “This is dangerous. I think it is stupid because the culture they are bringing in El Paquete is totally the opposite of Cuban culture and values,” said Gloria Rolando, 61, a film director of, among others, Roots of My Heart about the massacre of the members of an independent party of “color.”
Even if the U.S. embargo of Cuba were lifted, it is not yet clear whether – or to what extent – Internet access will be eased by the Cuban government. But the improvement of relations is likely to increase the torrent of media products entering the country, whether via El Paquete or other means.