El Paquete: How Cuba’s data pirates hand-feed an internet-starved nation
April 12, 2016
The traffickers often move by bicycle, criss-crossing Havana with the
week’s digital stash tucked in small slipcases.
They ply their trade in the backs of cellphone repair shops, or climb
stairs in creaky tenements to make their drops at clients’ doors.
In internet-starved Cuba, these black-market suppliers push a coveted
product — curated samples of the World Wide Web for $2 to $3 US.
Cubans call it “El Paquete Semanal,” or the weekly package.
It comes in the form of a one-terabyte re-up of newly pirated
information each Monday. Think international movies, newspapers, the
latest Afro-Cuban hip-hop tracks, Korean and Australian soap operas,
mobile apps, Wikipedia pages, PDFs of National Geographic magazine, the
entire run of Netflix’s House of Cards, even classified ads from
Revolico, Cuba’s take on Craigslist.
“It’s what I call our national internet,” says Isbel Diaz Torres, a
Havana package subscriber who consumes American culture through
reality-TV cooking shows like Top Chef and Chopped.
– Spark: Cuba’s underground alternative to the internet
“You have your films, your music, your articles,” says Torres, 40,
drinking a malted cola in the steamy tropical heat.
El Paquete was how Torres’s boyfriend caught February’s Oscars ceremony.
The clandestine service was also how Carlos Alejandro Rodriguez Halley,
a 28-year-old actor and restaurateur in the Cuban capital, watched the
film The Revenant even before some of his American friends.
“If you want to know about hockey scores, probably it’s in the package,”
he said between drags of a Hollywood brand cigarette. “Someone in this
corner, in this block, I bet you every week they pay to get the package.”
An ‘offline internet’
It’s not just about entertainment. The weekly digital delivery
reportedly informed many Cubans in 2011 about the death of Osama bin
Laden via foreign news.
The “offline internet” trade, as locals describe it, is not strictly
legal. The state controls Cuban news and entertainment media. But some
speculate the Castro regime turns a blind eye to the underground
sneakernet, reasoning it keeps the public desire for widespread internet
access at bay.
“You have everything you want to find in the internet on El Paquete,”
“Everything,” he adds, “except for communication.”
It’s one way the package falls short as more locals yearn for their
country to come online.
Digital dark ages
U.S. President Barack Obama urged the Cuban government during his visit
here last month to emerge from the digital dark ages.
“New technology has come and we need to bring it to Cuba,” Obama said.
The isolated nation’s internet penetration rate could be as low as five
per cent, according to the global democracy and civil-liberties watchdog
Wi-Fi hot spots remain elusive, though several parks allow for access
via pre-paid scratch cards. Even then, loading times are agonizingly
slow. It’s also expensive, costing $2 for a one-hour Wi-Fi scratch card
in a city where average wages are about $20 a month.
One young entrepreneur, who did not want to give his name, admitted to
hoarding scratch cards, then jacking up prices to $3 for the resale
market. Another of his odd jobs, he said, is as a dealer of El Paquete.
“In my opinion, it’s too difficult to get connected to Wi-Fi here,” he
said of the often spotty service. “So many people, like me, for example,
have lost all their credit while waiting, trying to get connected.”
Still, pass through a park in the central La Rampa ward at night, and
you may see dozens of faces illuminated by phone and tablet screens,
checking Facebook or video chatting with relatives abroad.
“It’s kind of a crazy situation. It’s very crowded, and you sometimes
have people sitting next to you, talking about very personal stuff.
Family stuff,” says Jorge Duany, a Florida-based Cuba scholar who tried
the island’s Wi-Fi for the first time in February.
Internet minutes are precious.
A common practice is to load up an email inbox, then disconnect to read
and draft replies offline. Users log back in once they’re ready to
Few people will waste time loading up the latest viral YouTube video.
Source: El Paquete: How Cuba’s data pirates hand-feed an
internet-starved nation –