When the Medium is the Message: The Cuban “El Paquete” System
by Jelena Prtoric
In 2020, Cuban-based Vistar magazine dedicated an issue to the coronavirus pandemic. A colourful illustration on page one of the magazine depicted people performing different activities emblematic of the lockdown period — playing video games, cooking, exercising in our rooms, gardening or analysing vials in a lab. In the pages of the magazine, one could read an interview with a famous Cuban doctor, a feature about the future of culture and entertainment in Cuba, a story about Cuban illustrators in the time of pandemic or a personal story of a woman who ended up spending 80 days quarantined in China. The layout of the magazine comprises eye-pleasing ads, attention-grabbing photos and stylish typographic solutions. But the issue was never intended to be printed and sold at press points. It was unloaded to an unknown number of hard drives and USB keys, and distributed along with popular movies, Netflix series, reggaeton music hits, apps and games to the readers across Cuba, through a system called “El Paquete Semanal” (the weekly package).
El Paquete — often dubbed as “offline internet”- is already well-established in Cuba, and not unknown outside its borders. Although the internet penetration has grown steadily in Cuba over time and, according to the World Bank data, 62% of the population used the internet in 2019, the connection can be spotty and the prices too expensive for many Cubans. At the same time, state-owned media channels are limited in the content they offer, while El Paquete allows the users to enjoy almost limitless weekly entertainment for a limited price.
As a research paper of a group of authors from the Georgian Institute of Technology (Atlanta, US) explains, the system functions thanks to a few that have unlimited access to the internet and can get the content, to those who compile the packages and copy the material, and an army of foot soldiers that distribute the content physically to the end-users who ordered their terabyte of content to be delivered at their doorstep. Los Maestros (The Masters) are organised in collectives or studios and are “acquiring, compiling, and organizing the original one TB packages.” They acquire the content from people who have varying degrees of internet access or by connecting with the local content creators (musicians, artists), they curate it and decide what will be featured in El Paquete based on users’ requests and what’s been popular in the past. Some Maestros sometimes even produce content of their own. When the weekly packages are ready, they are sold to and dispatched by Los Paqueteros (the packagers) across Cuba, to individual users and stores. Sometimes the packagers might also act as curators themselves, customizing the versions of El Paquete for their customers, based on their personal — or their customers’ — preferences. La Gente (the people), the consumers of El Paquete Semanal often share the content further within their communities.
“We started distribution in El Paquete l because of the unreliable Internet connection,” explains Robin Pedraja, Vistar’s creative director. Pedraja, who studied graphic design, is passionate about colours, typography and photos, so the role of creative director was a natural fit for him. Back in 2008, he was primarily a filmmaker and was making music videos and advertisements. “The only issue was — where would this content be shown,” Pedraja says.
This is why he co-founded Vistar in 2014 — to have a channel where he could showcase the country’s growing creative and advertisement industry. “Vistar is the first independent magazine in Cuba and [it was] the door to the new advertising industry in the country. …It’s the Cuban Rolling Stone,” he says.
The origins of the El Paquete distribution system are however much older than the first issue of Vistar, and the system itself wasn’t invented as a distribution channel for glossy magazines.
Ernesto Oroza, designer, artist, and research editor of the magazine JOURNAL, is a Cuban native currently living and working in France. Having researched the topic of offline piracy and technological disobedience in Cuba, Oroza believes that the origins of El Paquete are tied to the fact that the government itself practised audiovisual piracy to supply the materials to the official TV channels. Growing up in Cuba, he remembers the official TV channels were showing all the US movies from that era. Later on, the video cassettes distributed pirated materials. “It was very common to see people walking around Cuba with black bags…you were waiting for them every Friday, and they would give you three cassettes,” he says. “I was a consumer of the videocassettes, as a kid. I remember seeing popular American films, at the time,” Oroza says.
Around 2003, a phenomenon called S-net (stands for ‘street net’) sprung up across Cuba. “Kids started to pull the telephone cables in between the houses. They were mostly teenagers, 14–17 years old, and wanted to play video games together. They’d put the money together to buy the same graphic cards so that everyone can game in the same way, and as this process started growing they found the way to connect more kids,” Oroza explains,
Soon, not only kids wanting to game were connecting to the S-net. “There was something very pedagogical about S-net. You had people who wanted to learn by asking questions on forums, and IT savvy kids helping them out,” Oroza says. “The structure was quite horizontal, although of course network moderators were making sure that one is respecting the internal rules of the network.. it was illegal to advertise any services inside the S-net or to put up pornographic content, for instance,” he points out. The protocol was completely illegal and the police were often looking for the cables, so the users were always cautious about hiding them well. Later on, the cables were replaced by antennas and routers. But the S-net was finally stopped by the government in 2019.
Hollywood Blockbusters, Pasolini and Classified Ads
El Paquete and S-net coexisted for over a decade. The creation of the weekly package as a mass distribution network is usually traced back to 2007 or 2008. However, Oroza remembers that even in the early 2000s, there was a system of “proto El Paquete.”
“In 2003, my nephew had this disk you could connect directly to the TV, which could reproduce the content directly, no need to connect it to a computer. The disk was full of foreign movies and series,” Oroza remembers. But in 2007, when the regulation in Cuba finally allowed the general population to legally purchase and possess computers, El Paquete became a brand.
Similar to the video cassettes from Oroza’s youth, El Paquete also features Western movies, and series. “It is very inclusive. It can have mainstream movies from the USA, but also, my sister is watching Pasolini movies inside El Paquete,” he says.
However, El Paquete is much more than a simple hard drive filled with video content and music. One of its most popular contents is Revolico, a Cuban version of classified ads, originally a website where one can offer services, sell mobile phones or look for a job. “Revolico was heavily censored in Cuba, it was hard to access the website, so one of the ways to continue its distribution is to incorporate it into El Paquete,” Oroza explains.
El Paquete also nurtures the links between the Cuban diaspora and the homeland. “People are producing music in Miami, and are sending the video clips in El Paquete. They are making money outside the country, but are sending their music in Cuba to be distributed through El Paquete although they are not earning money in this way. If you want to be known in Cuba, you need to be present in El Paquete,” Oroza believes. The magazines such as Vistar are also contributing to the recognition of those musicians in Cuba by publishing and sharing their interviews.
And while they are still doing that through El Paquete, they are also increasingly turning to the Internet. Today, one can download issues of Vistar magazine directly from their website. “We want to reach more people overseas,” Pedraja explains. Their audience consists of the Cuban diaspora, in Miami and elsewhere, who can access their content more easily on the Internet than via El Paquete systems. However, Pedraja points out that, as the Internet in the country is becoming more widely available, especially among the young, urban audiences, the media landscape and El Paquete distribution are to be transformed.
He believes that the internet has already transformed a part of society, and refers to the series of protests against the government that started in July 2021, triggered by a shortage of food, medicine and power, and the official response to the coronavirus pandemic. “Recently, Cuban people have taken it to the streets asking for more freedom…and this is definitely thanks to the internet”.