With the advent of the Internet, any person has now been granted the means of entry to any type of online information that is produced and shared in a democratized media environment. Out of its most notable benefits, the Internet’s decentralized network system has facilitated the creation and retrieval of any form of digital content, which can be accessed ubiquitously by any world citizen who owns a technological device. In places like Cuba, however, the way citizens access information differs from most countries in the world, as seen in the provision of a content distribution service that is highly esteemed by Cubans: El Paquete.
To this day, Cuba is a country that abides the living consequences of economic hardship and an embargo since 1962. The online limitations posed by governmental forces and the restrained purchasing power of citizens have arguably been an impediment for Cubans to acquire Internet services on a regular basis, lacking frequent accessibility to Internet connectivity. By 2016, it would also take around 6 years of work to obtain a month of Wi-Fi Internet access, not to mention how before 2015, the island of Cuba remained almost offline due to the Internet’s late arrival.
The means through which Cubans receive their digital content are technologically constrained, and continue to be customarily monitored by authorities. As an adaptive response, communities have found themselves in the need to develop an alternative, and less expensive way of content distribution that satisfies their unmet information consumption demands. This phenomenon gives rise to a new unofficial business model that innovates the method of information delivery for Cuban families, one provided by hand and through offline means: El Paquete.
El Paquete Semanal (EPS) as the weekly content package
Whether in the form of magazines, computer applications, YouTube videos, or even screenshots of social media feeds like Twitter, El Paquete is a person-to-person service that seeks to resolve the problem of affordable information access. With this usable service, Cubans acquire weekly a terabyte of content compiled from popular local and international sources, with entertainment as one of the highest preferences for leisure. El Paquete is created by ‘Maestros’ for its release, and later distributed by ‘Paqueteros’, who deliver and curate content based on the community’s needs. Whereas creators of EPS – los Maestros – extract and generate a compilation of varied content from the Internet, ‘paqueteros’ further sell them to Cuban homes, businesses or physical stores across the island, from major towns like La Havana to those recondite provinces in a single day.
Since the cost of hard-drives tends to be unrealistic for individual families to purchase through their own means, it is entire blocks from Cuban cities that acquire a hard drive together, and donate this as a group effort to receive weekly content from their local distribution center.
A key to the success of El Paquete is the community-oriented approach that lies behind this initiative. Evidently, it is not an artificial decentralized network system that manages the information flows of thousands of Cubans, but rather an offline human distributor – el Paquetero – who delivers weekly curated content for families in storage devices (e.g. hard drives, USB, CDs, and DVDs, etc.). Since the cost of hard-drives tends to be unrealistic for individual families to purchase through their own means, it is entire blocks from Cuban cities that acquire a hard drive together, and donate this as a group effort to receive weekly content from their local distribution center. Here, the possibility of access to digital content does not depend on sole individuals, but rather entire neighbourhoods that negotiate and finance all together such access for their own use, and their neighbours’. El Paquete is thus based on a network of interpersonal relationships maintained around the different neighbourhoods, and counting with a high demand of users who expect their weekly requests.
El Paquete provides a very particular experience of information consumption, as it cannot provide timely information, nor interactive online communication among its users. In a similar way, content cannot be stored for the long term with El Paquete. Due to the limited capacity of the storage memory and high costs of external hard drives, neither producers or consumers of this service have the luxury of keeping its previous versions, for which content likely ends up being deleted and replaced with new one on a weekly basis, if not stored by external parties.
Despite these limitations, what remains remarkable is how the exchange of information is arguably enabled thanks to a shared sense of cooperation between members of the same community.
Despite the government’s initial efforts to eliminate El Paquete by 2017, authorities have exceptionally concealed the continuation of this pervasive service on the island. ‘Paqueteros’ have opportunely reached an arrangement to not get shut down, as long as the banning of any political or religious content is preserved, and authorities’ monitoring of media output stays unharmed. Despite these limitations, what remains remarkable is how the exchange of information is arguably enabled thanks to a shared sense of cooperation between members of the same community. Not only do users buy this content directly as a way to obtain El Paquete, but also some share it with other family members, or other neighbours who bought them.
El Paquete is now a service that has been normalized in the Cuban digital culture. From origin-to-end of the chain of distribution, it is the human infrastructure of El Paquete which makes this an ingenious distribution system, presenting to us an alternative that originated in the Cuban media landscape, and was born out of mere necessity. With other notable citizen initiatives apart from ‘El Paquete’ offline data packages, such as alternative Internet SNet, it is interesting how the content that Maestros download thanks to a small pool of individuals who give their limited Internet access, will further be enjoyed by ‘la gente’ – millions of Cubans who satisfactorily receive their weekly Paquetes.
I wrote this article inspired by lecturer Luis Rodil-Fernández, who I had the opportunity to meet during a lecture about alternative internet access and emergent practices in countries like Cuba. Here, I take as inspiration his words of reflection: “In many respects the most connected individuals in Cuba are no different to the most connected individuals anywhere else, they share a similar level of access and they are not as isolated as popular accounts of Cuban internet culture would have you believe”. These thoughts represent a clear appreciation about Cuba’s digital community, citizens from a nation that does not take part in the major share of countries that enjoy the abundance of unlimited Internet connectivity, yet with a resourceful culture that has not regarded this as an impediment to seek alternatives for adaptation.
Edited by: Carolina Alves