The vast majority of Cubans have no access to the Internet or cable television, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of touch with the wider world. Many stay connected through an offline system that operates in the legal shadows.
It’s called the “weekly packet,” and it’s an alternative to broadband Internet that provides tens of thousands of Cubans, and perhaps many more, with foreign movies, TV shows, digital copies of magazines, websites and even local advertising.
Cubans obtain the packet by toting empty portable computer hard drives to clandestine distributors who load them with an array of the latest movies, television episodes and music videos. Then the hard drives are taken home, where they’re viewed on computers over the next week.
Where the material originates remains a mystery, but Cuba’s one-party state, which controls all television and print media and brooks little open dissent, seems to tolerate the system – perhaps because it provides entertainment in a nation where daily life is often drab.
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One recent week, the packet included the latest television episodes of Showtime’s “Homeland,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and the new Netflix serial “Marco Polo,” all with Spanish-language subtitles and without commercial interruption. Movies in the packet included the recent releases “Gone Girl,” “Cantinflas” and “Outcast.”
The packet also can include news and variety shows from the Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo. There are YouTube videos, updates to anti-virus software, Japanese anime, programs from India and the Middle East, mobile phone apps and simple advertisements for businesses in Cuba.
“I watch the news, documentaries, humor shows and sports events,” said Luis Lahera, a 45-year-old former safety and rescue expert for the Interior Ministry
Lahera said he had no qualms about spending the equivalent of $2.30 a week to get the weekly packet, even though some officials had criticized its content.
“I heard them say on the TV news that the packet can cause people to deviate, but I don’t see proof of this. No one speaks of politics. . . . And there’s no pornography on it,” Lahera said.
“It’s a way of escape,” said Poe Rivera, a painter and poet, who added that the packet distracts and amuses Cubans. “It’s not legal but it is convenient,” he said, referring to why the government might do little to interfere with its distribution. “This way, people don’t think too much.”
In the far western reaches of Havana, a distributor of the weekly packet allowed two foreign reporters to see how he operates. He asked to be called only by an alias, Iyawo, lest he be arrested and imprisoned.
“All the series you see in Miami you can see here,” he said, listing Spanish-language programs such as “Sal y Pimienta” (“Salt and Pepper”), “The Alexis Valdes Show” and “Case Closed,” which deals with domestic disputes.
He had an array of computers and monitors in his living room. Most looked ancient. He said foreign friends had brought him state-of-the-art motherboards and other circuitry, and the computers were modern on the inside, letting him download files quickly.
A former minister of culture, Abel Prieto, spoke of the weekly packet last April at a congress of the National Union of Writers and Artists of Cuba, blaming “errors by our educational, cultural and media institutions” for its popularity. Rather than ban the packet, Prieto urged Cuban state media to improve programming.
Predictions that authorities would slam the door on the weekly packet coincide with praise for it from cultural commentators.
“What we call the packet is certainly one of the most important cultural phenomena the country has experienced in the past quarter century,” writer Victor Fowler Calzada said at a forum in Havana in November.
Clients of the weekly packet pay on a sliding scale, depending on the day of the week they receive their loaded hard drives and the amount of material they want. Clients can receive as much as one terabyte of material – hundreds of hours of video – which requires an external hard drive the size of a small book, or as little as can fit on a tiny flash drive, selecting only certain categories of content. As weekdays roll by and the material grows older, the price drops.
Iyawo said he had about 200 clients who paid an average of $1 each. He said he paid $15 a week to receive the material from a distributor above him. At least 1,000 distributors like him are scattered around Cuba, he added.
Iyawo said he didn’t know where the distributor who supplied him got the material. Satellite dishes are outlawed in Cuba and those who use them can face large fines. Some suspect that Cubans who work in official jobs with access to broadband Internet may be downloading and assembling the packets on the sly.
The packets are thought to travel from Havana to provincial cities with bus drivers who take hard drives with them.
Experts say that about 5 percent of Cuba’s 11 million citizens have periodic access to the Internet. The rest remain in online darkness, except those with a little hard currency, perhaps from relatives abroad, who own hard drives.
In addition to television shows, music videos and movies, the packets include recent NBA games, European soccer matches, ultimate fighting and PDF files that contain the pages of magazines such as Women’s Fitness, Autosport and Cinefila, a Mexican publication on cinema. Some movies are high definition, while others are crude copies made by someone filming the screen at a movie theater.
The packets contain simple advertising from the small private businesses that began to appear in Cuba in the 1990s and have emerged much more broadly since Raúl Castro took the reins of the nation from his brother, Fidel, in 2006.
A recent weekly packet included ads for a small restaurant, the Melesio Grill, and a print shop, Impresionarte. Several ads contained only cellphone numbers and the first names of proprietors, apparently wary of crossing the regime. One ad offered a photo service for weddings; another one touted balloons for parties.
It’s the TV shows and movies, though, that hold the most appeal. Iyawo described himself as “a fanatic” of the series “Homeland.”
“It’s got espionage. It’s got drama. It’s got suspense,” he said. “Every episode has something distinct.”
He said he’d be distraught if the weekly packet were banned.
“That’s what everyone asks: ‘If they take this away, what would happen?’ It would be chaos,” he said, with a touch of hyperbole. Pausing a moment, he added: “This is a vice. Cuban television is so bad, and this provides us some entertainment.
“This is at the margin of what is good and what is bad, without falling into the bad.”