Cuban Connectivity: Cuba Enters the Digital Age

Over the last two years, since then-President Barack Obama announced a normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States, there has been much discussion about the need to improve digital communications on the island. Telecommunications corporations like Google and Verizon have been salivating over the possibility of entering what has been referred to in the media as a “virgin” market: a market that many believe to be a technological backwater, frozen in time. But Cubans are much more savvy in their Internet consumption than international media pundits suggest. Through such cultural forms as the weekly package, Cubans access and redistribute a broad range of material from the Internet. Cubans have even begun to use this offline content as a means for promoting their own social justice projects.

Only about 27 percent of Cubans currently have Internet access, and not all of these users can access the full global Internet—many are limited to a government-controlled Intranet accessed through their workplaces. For its part, the Raúl Castro government has pledged to bring Internet access to all Cubans by 2020, and has made overtures to major corporations like Google, AT&T, and Verizon to assist in achieving this goal. In June 2016, for example, Google executives traveled to Cuba for talks with the government about Internet connectivity.

However, initial attempts by U.S. media corporations to attract Cuban consumers have been mostly unsuccessful. One example is Netflix: in February 2015, the video-streaming company launched in Cuba, offering its service for US$8 per month. Netflix has not taken off in the way that executives had hoped due to the prohibitively high cost (most Cubans earn the peso equivalent of anywhere between US$20 and $60 per month) as well as the lack of a reliable high-speed Internet service on the island.

The Cuban government has permitted some grassroots Internet projects, either with explicit consent or through tacit noninterference. In the long run, it is these kinds of projects, run from within the networks and spaces of everyday Cuban life, that stand a greater chance at incorporating Cubans into a digital era. One of the projects that the Cuban government approved was by the sculptor Kcho, who opened a public wireless hub at his cultural center in western Havana.

Another project that has operated since 2006 in a more underground or informal manner is el paquete semanal (the weekly package). The package is the Cuban alternative to broadband Internet, containing one terabyte of data that is downloaded weekly by people with access to high-speed Internet. It is not known who they are or where they get this access, with some speculating that it must be under the government’s radar or else the whole production would have been shut down. The package is distributed informally via hard drives throughout the island, from the urban enclaves of Havana to the mountains of Guantánamo. The package is an eclectic collection of Hollywood films, Cuban films, YouTube clips, Spanish-language news websites, illegal classified listings, computer technology websites, Japanese anime, instructional videos, music videos, and much more. Through this distribution network, Cubans are able to watch American television series like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones.

There is an entirely new sphere of employment that has resulted from the package, typified by the informal-sector network of neighborhood distributors that has emerged. Armed with large hard drives, they sell parts of the package for as low as one convertible peso, equal to about US$1. A recent report estimated that the package gives employment to forty-five thousand Cubans, generates upward of US$1 million per week, and reaches about five million people—nearly half of the Cuban population.

There is a high degree of customization of the contents of the package. For example, Cubans can ask their local distributor for a particular genre of film, such as French neo-realism. A local distributor in the suburb of Vedado said that the most popular requests are for TV series and soap operas, along with music and illegal classifieds. There are films from small and distant parts of the globe: one Cuban cultural critic writes that recently, independent films from the remote Polynesian island of Niue have become popular.

Independent Cuban news producers are trying to tap into the broad networks that have been created through the package. The news writer Elaine Diaz, for example, started up a site called Periodismo de Barrio. This site reports on issues of ecology and natural disaster, such as the power generators in the village of Guanabo that were harmful to the health of local residents. In her first post, Diaz said that she had designed her site specifically with the package in mind: “Periodismo de Barrio will be ‘package-first,’ anchored in the real situation of Cuban connectivity.”

Instead of bombarding Cubans with flashy services like Netflix that they cannot afford, Internet-based projects that tap into existing local networks of consuming and sharing information are bound to be more beneficial and to enjoy greater success in reaching ordinary Cubans. Foreign corporations like Google and Verizon have little idea of how Cubans experience the Internet and, importantly, little regard for the kinds of socially engaged projects that they may wish to use it for.