Shopping Havana for Cuban Technology

Article and photo by Maximiliano Madrid

While in Havana, my classmate Alex Sun and I wanted to buy El Paquete, a gray-market digital service of television shows, movies, music, software and video games from abroad, which locals can upload on their flash drives. New content is available every week.

People at an El Paquete shop in Havana wait to fill their flash drives with new digital content.

Knowing little about the city, we had no clue where to begin our search—and assumed that El Paquete was still a mostly underground service. But fluent in Spanish, we thought we could find we were looking for.

Ten minutes from our hotel, we stopped at a busy intersection and asked a passerby, a tall, slim, well-dressed young woman with dyed blonde hair. Penelope–she did not want her last name used–said she worked as a cook at a hotel and leads tours of Old Havana for private clients.

When asked about El Paquete, Penelope shouted “Mami” at the building next to us, and her mom came out on a second-floor balcony and directed us to a nearby store. The first challenge was to find a flash drive, and Penelope led us through 10 streets to four different locations before we found one. The shops there had Android and Apple logos plastered on the walls and windows, and were crowded. But at each shop, we were told either that they did not sell USB devices or were sold out. Finally, at the fifth shop, we were able to purchase a 16GB flash drive for 20 CUCS, just over $22 at the local exchange rate. That’s about four times what it would cost in the United States.

As we walked around Old Havana, we were surprised how many shops were selling El Paquete openly. The shops usually provide a catalog of offerings to choose from. At the store where we stopped, four binders were filled with more than a thousand TV shows, movies and video games with a brief description next to its listing. Fast and Furious, Despicable Me and Breaking Bad were among the options.

We asked the salesperson to fill the flash drive with the most popular Cuban content, such as salsa music and novelas.

It took 40 minutes before our paquete was ready, so we browsed some businesses in the area. We wanted to buy cigars, which Americans can bring back in larger quantities since the $100 limit was lifted in October 2016. Penelope thought we were crazy to pay $16.95 dollars for a Cohiba, so she made a call and arranged a visit to the apartment of someone who, we were told, works at a cigar factory and could sell us much cheaper cigars.

We walked two blocks and entered a tall house with a dull gray exterior. Upstairs, in a well-appointed apartment with tall ceilings, newly painted walls and modern appliances, we bought a box of high-end Cohibas for about $79, 75 percent less the official price at a government store.

At the paquete shop, we picked up our fully load flash drive and paid $5.65 to get our USB device, fully loaded with a week’s worth of Cuban content.