Utopia in a Package? Digital Media Piracy and the Politics of Entertainment in Cuba

One hot Havana evening in August 2014, some young Cuban filmmaker friends of mine and I waited to place an order at a pizzeria. Much to my annoyance, the cafeteria’s TV was in violent competition with that of a neighboring business, as both establishments pumped out conflicting reggaeton beats at high volume. Scenes such as these have become increasingly common since 2010, when Raúl Castro’s government began issuing more small business licenses. Many of the new restaurants and bars boast their own television sets, and conduct transactions accompanied by the sounds of music videos supplied through another flourishing business: el paquete semanal or “the weekly package,” one terabyte of pirated digital media distributed across the island every week. I wondered aloud about the recent ubiquity of pirated media in local establishments. “It’s what they think is modern,” one of my friends shrugged dismissively.1

The paquete semanal has generated excitement both on the island and off.2 Cuban intellectuals and foreign newspapers from El País to Forbes have praised the phenomenon for circumventing state censorship and the island’s limited Internet connectivity to access the latest in world entertainment and information. These arguments resonate with scholarship on media piracy in the global South, which has shown that such practices are often experienced as a means of modernity in contexts marginalized from dominant media circuits (e.g., Larkin 2008; Sundaram 1999). Yet as my friend’s dismissal of reggaeton music videos suggests, in Cuba fantasies of catching up and plugging into global flows have gone hand in hand with concerns about what kind of modernity will be ushered in by recent economic reforms and the renewal of diplomatic relations with the United States.

While much reporting on the paquete has emphasized its novelty, debates about the phenomenon on the island reflect longstanding tensions between aspirations to an alternative socialist modernity and citizens’ desires for entertainment. In the first decades of the revolution, Cuban cultural functionaries and intellectuals criticized what they saw as the colonizing effects of commercial culture from Hollywood to local dance music, as well as the infantilization of spectators by socialist realism. They argued instead for a critical and experimental aesthetics that would train Cubans to become new socialist men and women who could think for themselves, filling theaters with what was deemed the best of world cinema, from the Soviet avant-garde to the Latin American and European New Waves. As early as the 1960s, some artists worked to refunction entertainment for revolutionary purposes, while the 1980s and later decades have seen growing efforts to merge social concerns with popular genres.

Still, the problem with this project of an alternative socialist modernity, as one Cuban friend told me, was that intellectuals sometimes “forgot how beautiful entertainment is.” Citizens increasingly resorted to media piracy to circumvent restrictions on global entertainment imposed by state censorship, lack of economic resources, and the embargo. When the Beatles and other rock music were banned from state television and radio, Cubans listened to this music in secret on pirated records. In more recent decades, citizens turned to illegal satellite-television connections and informal exchanges of digital media by flash and hard drive to keep up with world trends.

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Copying the paquete at its source onto hard drives for distribution throughout Cuba. Each hard drive is labeled with the town or region to which it is destined. Photo by Laura-Zoë Humphreys. 

The paquete semanal has democratized these forms of media piracy, making their products available to a broad swath of citizens while providing others with a reasonably lucrative business opportunity. My conversations with some of the young men behind the production of the paquete suggest that, among other sources, they get their material from illegal satellite television, hotel Internet connections, and local artists and entrepreneurs who use the paquete to promote their work. This data—which includes everything from software applications to South Korean doramas (television dramas) to new forms of local advertising—is compiled on Sundays and then distributed by messengers and bus drivers to resellers in Havana and across the island, from whom end users purchase either the entire paquete or selected files.

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A sign outside a second-story Havana apartment advertises “Digital Information.” The vendor specializes in the resale of the paquete, which he sells either in its entirety or in parts for prices ranging from 1–3 CUC depending on the time of the week. Photo by Laura-Zoë Humphreys.

The paqueteros repeatedly insist that they do not include pornography or dissident political materials. Political leaders have generally accepted these claims and, as a result, local debates have concentrated on the paquete’s cultural and aesthetic effects. Echoing longstanding critiques of commercial media, Raúl Castro’s cultural advisor Abel Prieto cautioned that the paquete gives “the impression that individuals are choosing what they want to consume, when this is done according to paradigms imposed on them.” More liberal intellectuals, by contrast, dismiss such concerns as state paternalism: film critic Dean Luis Reyes contends that socialist functionaries have consistently underestimated the intelligence of spectators in ways that perpetuate state power, an argument that echoes earlier critiques of socialist realism as infantilizing.3 Still, even those intellectuals most critical of state control of the media are not entirely sanguine about the paquete. One film critic I interviewed worried that the decay of Cuba’s educational system meant that youth were susceptible to reggaeton’s consumerism and misogyny, even while he insisted that the solution lay not in state censorship but in adding media courses to the school curriculum.

It would be easy to dismiss these reactions as elite and distanced from popular tastes. Surprisingly, however, even those running the paquete sometimes expressed similar concerns. The paqueteros with whom I spoke often defended their work as a means of providing Cubans with a diversity and choice in programming unavailable in the limited offerings of state television. But when I asked an older man who worked as a messenger if he thought the state might close them down, he resorted to an argument that would resonate with many Cuban intellectuals: “This is like a drug, it stops people from thinking about their problems.” As another young paquetero put it, the paquete keeps people “entertained and quiet.” And while much has been made about the ways in which the paquete has facilitated new forms of independent advertising, the paqueteros themselves incorporate these materials cautiously to avoid irritating spectators whose viewing habits were formed under socialism. Reactions such as these suggest both ongoing ambivalence about commercial media and suspicion that the state might have its own motives for tolerating media piracy. Nonetheless, in a context where entertainment increasingly represents not only distraction and economic opportunity but also rebellion against state paternalism and censorship, Cubans will not soon abandon its attractions.

Notes

1. This post draws on archival research and fieldwork with Cuban filmmakers, intellectuals, and cultural functionaries from 2003 to 2015, as well as new ethnographic research on digital media piracy in 2014 and 2015. A longer version of this article is forthcoming in boundary 2.

2. The paquete has also been the subject of a reggaeton music video and an episode of Cuba’s popular comedy series Vivir del cuento

3. Cuban film critic Gustavo Arcos takes a similar position.

References

Larkin, Brian. 2008. Signal and Noise: Media, Infrastructure, and Urban Culture in Nigeria. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Sundaram, Ravi. 1999. “Recycling Modernity: Pirate Electronic Cultures in India.” Third Text 13, no. 47: 59–65.