The Only Internet Most Cubans Know Fits in a Pocket and Moves by Bus

Meet El Packete. OK, it’s a thumb drive. But to many residents of the Net’s lost island, it’s all they’ve got.

Last week I wrote about the dismal Internet access, or lack of it, in Cuba, where I recently visited. But due to a combination of resourcefulness and desperation, Cubans have managed a system whereby commercial content is easily available. By way of an informal but extraordinarily lucrative distribution chain — one guy told me the system generates $5 million in payments a month — anyone in Cuba who can pay can watch telenovelas, first-run Hollywood movies, brand-new episodes of Game of Thrones, and even search for a romantic partner. It’s called El Packete, and it arrives weekly in the form of thumb drives loaded with enormous digital files. Those drives make their way across the island from hand to hand, by bus, and by 1957 Chevy, their contents copied and the drive handed on.

In a sense, El Packete is a very slow high-capacity Internet access connection; someone (no one knows who) loads up those drives with online glitz and gets them to Cuban shores. As in the Hollywood system, there are distribution windows. If you can wait to watch your favorite show, you’ll pay less.

El Packete plays to Cuban strengths and needs: Cubans, several people told me, are great at sharing. And being paid to be part of the thumb-drive supply chain is a respectable job in an economy that is desperately short on employment opportunities.

So the reason for its popularity is no mystery. The real riddle is why this rogue system can operate under the tight governing regime. The Cuban government has to know that this underground operation impinges on its monopoly on information. The secret police calls people in all the time to find out what’s going on. But for some reason El Packete isn’t a problem, while actual Internet access is.

Why?

For a possible answer, consider what’s happening in another control-crazy country — China. The Asian giant unveiled an alarming “national security law” announcement earlier this month. As the New York Times reported, the new law doesn’t say much about “traditional security matters as military power, counterespionage or defending the nation’s borders.” Instead, it’s focused on centralizing and consolidating the power of the state. The real threat to the Chinese government is an organized, energetic civil society, influenced by Western nonprofits, that might undermine the survival of the Communist Party. And so the law calls for all of these organizations to be officially sponsored, registered and regulated, and for all foreign companies to essentially agree to be surveilled at all times.

What China wants is for its people to be commercially active — building an enormous, consuming middle class — but politically passive. That may well be the thinking of the current Cuban leadership as it implicitly allows El Packete to circulate.

True, access to telenovelas and HBO series might make the Cuban people long for the air conditioners and dishwashers they see in the backgrounds of the dramas on the screen. But it won’t make them get up from their chairs and do anything to change the country. And so the breathtaking inequality of Cuba can continue, changing only incrementally and only at the pace with which the Cuban government is comfortable.

Cuban hotels, all government-owned, are places that Cubans can now visit and for which they can work; the bellman carrying your bags can make twenty times more in a single night than his wife, a dentist, can make in a month. That’s because he is paid in the touristic currency (itself worth many times more than the ordinary Cuban peso) and gets tips, while his wife must work within the government-controlled system. Living completely outside that system is possible, but suspect; you’ll be called in for interrogation.

Encouraging passive consumption: that’s the model of El Packete and the robotic ideal of the Cuban citizen now facilitated by the current regime.

All of this came home for me when I interviewed a young Cuban documentarian, a woman who had gone briefly to Colombia for a graduate program and now feels her mission in life is to help her country. She was both soft-voiced and determined; she began to cry as she told me that she has realized that the lack of Internet access is not only a problem for her generation but also for the whole country, because Cubans cannot participate as citizens through the Web. She said that even though everyone told her that she was going to get in trouble she needed to make a movie to tell this story.

She did make that movie, she called it “Offline,” and she handed me a copy. It’s like El Packete, going in the other direction, and this time with meaningful content: I brought it back with me to the U.S. I hope you will watch it today.

Photo by Susan Crawford

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What should the US do about Cuban connectivity? Should it actively intervene to get Internet access into the hands of the people there? And what about the copyright holders whose work is passed around, for free, on the El Packete thumb drives? Please continue the discussion below.