Inside El Paquete, Cuba’s Social Network

For the last several years, colleagues and I have been visiting Cuba to connect with fellow designers and entrepreneurs as part of a program called Incúbate.

We’ve been leading workshops and getting to know fellow thinkers as the economic conditions on the island change. Ever since we began visiting, one local cultural institution remained out of our reach, yet utterly spellbinding: El paquete semanal, or the weekly package.

In a country where the government keeps tight control over the media, citizens are able to access an extraordinary amount of information from around the world in the form of a terabyte-sized weekly file dump, Bring Your Own Hard Drive. For what an American would pay for a single song on iTunes, Cubans can experience thousands of hours of movies and TV, music, and sports.

As Cubans look to April and a post-Castro future, it seems appropriate to take another look at the special place the paquete occupies in the wave of commercialization that has advanced, receded, and may advance again.

Much media attention on el paquete has focused on the Pirate Bay content piracy aspect of the story, on the idea of illegal satellite dishes grabbing transmissions forbidden on the island. Homespun commercial elements emerging inside the drive’s ecosystem are much more interesting, and tell the story of an economy trying its best to move on from the past, and how we all engage with media in the 21st Century.

After finally figuring out how to track down our own copy of the paquete in a trip to Cuba, we were able to pore over it. We realized something crucial: El paquete isn’t just a bunch of bootleg stuff from outside Cuba. It’s a media ecosystem unto itself, beyond mere entertainment, and an utter treasure trove for the tiny Venn diagram of Cuba enthusiasts and state-controlled-media-in-the-digital-age observers.

Sponsorship, promotions, digital and classified advertising, and even an e-commerce engine live in the weekly distribution, evolving from a culture of maker-ism rather than a culture of commercialism, with signs and signifiers from the pirate software world as much as the local newspaper.

Further, as we approach a quantum media environment in the West, driven by a set of shifting logics in which facts can be true, not true, indeterminate, and meaningless, the Cuban system, a system developed based on skirting aggressive censorship and misinformation rules born of a print-driven Soviet propaganda structure that is now dissolving into absurdist theater, this can all be worth thinking about.

Back To The Future, Too

There’s an interesting historical analog to el paquete in the Cuban story. After the Soviet Union, Cuba’s main economic lifeline, collapsed suddenly in 1989, the island found itself adrift in an era of crisis.

The austerity Cubans endured was staggering, defined by a 35% drop in GDP and almost unthinkable changes in culture, including implementation of a law in which poaching a cow earned you more jail time than murdering a human and Cuban punk rockers infected themselves with HIV because life imprisoned inside sanatorium walls was more tolerable than being on the outside.

In 1992 the military issued a book called “Con Nuestros Propios Esfuerzos” (With Our Own Efforts) that served as a chronicle to survival through shared knowhow, with everything from horticultural knowledge and recipes to herbal medicines to public health to transport, featuring tips submitted by ordinary Cubans.

The make-do culture in Cuba, known locally by the term “resolver,” and the propensity for Cubans to bring a unique isolated, constrained lens to solving problems is important to bear in mind as we see some of the features and systems that make el paquete a unique Cuban solution, just like the earlier pamphlet.

In part to give a deeper perspective to those looking to understand Cuban culture (and maybe even our global, decentralized, true-and-not-and-other media networks), and in part to pay tribute to the mostly unknown Cuban people acting as nodes to make this system happen, we’re attempting to show el paquete’s range and cultural depth by showing what others aren’t, the commercialism in the package.

Taking it from the top

This piece is intended to orient the reader around the organization and content contained in el paquete semanal, with a special focus on the commercial elements. It’s long, but far from comprehensive. If you’re looking for a full table of contents as well as, a full directory tree of this version’s file structure is available on GitHub for reference. An easier-to-explore version of each week’s paquete file structure is uploaded to this site fairly regularly, so you can see what’s current.

Meanwhile, my Spanish isn’t near fluency presently, so I’ll do my best to translate (and I’m sure others can be helpful, so feel free to comment if I get something wrong).

El paquete’s main file structure uses the exclamation point to bring folders to the fore, a low-key hack of alphabetic sorting. There are seven folders up top: Action movies (including classics like Point Break and Men in Black), Cuban cinema, concerts in HD (a rip of Luis Enrique’s Ciclos DVD), Reality Shows (no translation necessary!) and three categories I’ll come back to, as they’re part of the essential paquete world beyond pirated off-island media: “Guia d todo En Cuba,” “Revolico (Anuncios Clasificados),” and “Lo ultimo de la Red de Redes”.

Movies & TV

Easily the biggest group of top-level folders in el paquete are for movies and TV, and those subcategories make up the bulk of the drive. Most of the movie categories are pretty self-explanatory. “Animation” is kids shows, mostly. Trailers” are upcoming films. “Peliculas de Estreno” are new release movies. Subcategories in movies include classics, westerns, Mexican movies, etc. Series are your big budget prime time shows, either “en Transmision” (like, ongoing now, Blackish, or Luke Cage) or “Finalizadas” (concluded, in this sense; Justified and Murder in the First). “Novelas are your soap operas, from nearly every Spanish-speaking and/or soap-crazy nation.

I was initially struck by how much of it was eastern —there’s far more content from Asia than feels typical for a Hispanic TV market, at least more than I see on TV in other Spanish-speaking, Western-hemisphere countries. For instance, there’s an entire folder of doramas from Japan, 23 different titles, and films from India, Korea, China, and Japan. And there’s a ton of manga — from episodes to scans of comics (Crisis on Infinite Earths!) and deep cut audio of Beat Crusaders and the Beck soundtracks.

Concursos de Participacion” is mostly talent contest-type reality shows, like Big Brother, Top Model, and X-Factor.

Deportes,” sports, transmitted as recently as the prior day, include car racing, boxing, cycling, soccer, baseball, swimming, basketball, UFC, and X Games, as well as a bevy of news & analysis programs.

“Documentales and “Miniseries folders are everything from Plastic Surgery Disasters to American Pickers (renamed Cazadores de Tesoros, or Treasure Hunters en Español) to Angelina Jolie in True Women.

Combos de Estreno (2016) is where you see el paquete shift from just a collection of popular media people want to watch to a vehicle in itself for Cuban culture.

It consists of two folders, both VIDEO and AUDIO_TS folders, one a compilation of scary movies, one music videos, both signed by the curators. “Lo + Pegao Vol. 29” is a Now That’s What I Call Music-style compilation of videos that you might show in your corner store, or at your house party. The other’s a horror quintuple feature.

What’s interesting is they both feature the logo and name of Abdel La Esencia (even in the filenames) who seems to be a promoter and whose clients we’ll see all over el paquete, especially in the Music section.

Here’s a good place for a quick digression.

Paquete economics:
The cost of el paquete is basically dependent on the freshness of the material and number of copies from the sources you are, between $1CUC and $3CUC ($1–3 USD).

The notion that there are many authorized and unauthorized resellers complicates the whole idea of a revenue model partially supported by ride-along advertising content like Abdel’s music and movie picks, fronted with their pre-roll ad.

Fundamentally, this is not a situation where there’s a sense of net neutrality, that you pay your fee and get a pristine environment to enjoy Game of Thrones.

Despite the state levying in the Cuban constitution that the media cannot be used to facilitate capitalism, the fabric of el paquete is one based on commercial messaging. It’s laden with advertising at every level, and its administrators have worked to ensure the content you want comes with content you might discover and find interesting.

Meanwhile, the Cuban government has attempted to popularize its own version of el paquete with “la mochila” but it doesn’t seem to have taken off. Some have theorized the Cuban government is active — beyond turning a blind eye— in el paquete’s dissemination, due to the lack of racy material, for example. Apparently, however, a paquete x — the porno paquete — exists. “Of course, none of this material comes from Cuba, only the United States,” one Cuban told us.

Paquete legality: 
In either case, el paquete is firmly in one of the grey zones that thrive in Cuba, held together more by community and trust than any rule. And, copyright? What copyright?

Music

Music is the next major category you’ll find on el paquete, and it doesn’t disappoint. Nine artists, including Jason Derulo and Barbra Streisand, get the “Discografia En MP3” treatment, with their entire output transmitted with this week’s package. An homage to folk singer Silvio Rodriguez contains 19 albums and a documentary film.

There are also folders for music videos and individual MP3s and videos from the year, updated weekly. Here are a couple top-billed, high production value music videos contained in the group:

Almost every filename in the music folder—save those of revolutionary hero Silvio Rodriguez, seemingly above commercial defilement—has been appended with “(Abdel La Esencia Y Estudios Odisea)”, and every piece of album art has been replaced with promotional shots.

Perhaps you were browsing “Música Internacional 2016” and came across Seattle band The Cave Singers’ Banshee album, by far the most indie rock selection in the paquete, and put on “The Swimmer.” Or you were looking for something more Cuban in the “Música Nacional 2016” folder and found “La Nena” by Angel Manuel Y Su Rin from the Adelanto label. Both would have a promotional filename from Estudios Odisea.

In a media network that’s based on a file system, even the metadata becomes a place for a commercial message. And it’s the embedded album art and id3 tags that are changed, which should persist through el paquete’s twisted distribution channels to other networks, and even when people copy and rename files to their own devices. It’s almost like el paquete has become a hyper-capitalist space where net neutrality and the squeaky-clean metadata of early web pirates never existed.

Meanwhile, another key insight that comes from clicking through el paquete: it is a content source partly designed to be deployed on televisions.

Most recently-developed TVs have USB connections; a cafe owner might plug in her paquete, and point her TV to the drive, and let it autoplay through the music folder, just like she might put on the horror movie compilation above during Halloween. Abdel’s metadata promotion is featured in a bold way.

Deeper inside the Musica folder is a folder entitled “((((CARTELERA DE LA SEMANA” — “weekly billboard”—which consists of several dozen flyers for live gigs, club nights, quincañera outfitters, jet ski rentals, and more. Whatever you might need to have a fun night out, or shoot a music video, can be found in the Cartelera.

There were a few especially curious elements in the Music section, one being Llego a ti (“I come to you”).

Llego a ti is a 199-page PDF catalog with interlinked product pages and ordering instructions, so people can purchase handmade products such as purses, shoes, boots, backpacks, and belts. Items are delivered within Havana, with costs ranging between $1-$3 CUC depending on proximity to the central city.

As a user, you move through the catalog, select your items, their colors and sizes, write down the SKU, and then the transaction moves into SMS to be finalized.

Llego a ti (“Buy with a click!”) is also available to paquete subscribers in the mobile apps section of the publication, which is where things get even more interesting.

Because, most Cuban app development has happened without mobile data—most Cubans only received access to the mobile internet recently at government-sponsored wifi hotspots — Cuban mobile apps are designed to function on their own, kicking over to the phone or SMS when a communication is required.

But, we’ll get to that in a minute. Let’s linger with magazines for a moment. Throughout the Music folders, there are local magazines, almost casually placed, as if they might accompany a listening session. Garbos, a fashion and culture magazine, Amano, a interior design title, negra, for photographers, el Toque, on boxing, el Arca, (a Noah’s Ark reference?) on pets.

There’s an entirely separate “Revistas” folder, split into magazines in Spanish, containing the local titles to the left, along with others like Primavera, on quinceañera styles, which shipped along with a special supplement promoting photographic studio Revel, and international magazines come from all over the Hispanic and publishing world. From a local cuisine magazine covering Juarez and El Paso, to a Guatemalan car mag, to Argentine gossip weeklies, to soap opera digests from Mexico. What’s interesting is the first 3–4 pages of some magazines, evidently the more popular ones, have been replaced by ads for local businesses.

For instance, in Digital Photo magazine, there are ads for local photo studios. Salons, printing companies, candy stores, baby photo studios, salons specializing in hair dying, you name it: aesthetic services rule the magazine section, and seem to be targeted to the specific types of magazines consumers of those services might read.

Interestingly, there are no ebooks in el paquete, no literature, and the only current events inclusion is rare, in things like the international edition of Bloomberg BusinessWeek, with a cover story on Venezuela with a thesis — “despite massive protests and growing economic desperation, the Maduro government hasn’t lost power” — which feels evergreen.

Software

The software section is where el paquete really comes into its own, which speaks to its roots in the online piracy worlds of torrents and warez and the associated media. Games, antivirus protection, and cracked applications make up the offerings, but what’s particularly interesting is the environment in which these programs work.

There’s no nationwide broadband internet in Cuba. Select members of the elite, academics for instance, or party members, have barely-fast-enough-to-be-broadband internet access in their homes. Meanwhile, there’s no nationwide mobile internet in Cuba, and the government has, only recently, with prodding and partnership from commercial entities like Huawei, opened up prohibitively expensive wifi hotspots in central Havana

While connectivity is scarce, devices are prevalent, which makes el paquete function somewhat like a weekly App Store update for smartphone users.

The “Aplicaciones Para Moviles” folder contains dozens of .apk and .ipa files for jailbroken iPhones and Android devices, as well as text file changelogs.

You’ve got the big apps most folks everywhere use, Firefox, Telegram, Line, Big Blue’s representations (FB / Messenger / Instagram / WhatsApp), MSQRD (it was having its moment at the time), Skype, Twitter. But the island-made apps are interesting as well.

Apps for technology companies (in the strictest sense) work similar to “llego a ti”; you basically get in touch via SMS and place an ad and it appears in the next version, and runs for a specific time, like a month.

What’s maybe even more interesting is the Cuban advertising environment has also realized apps are the future, and a firm called High Vista (of course not Altavisa; this and MakaraSoft are a few of the fun English-ish names we’ve seen in the Cuban environment) offers a menu of services. It’s basically a media kit for el paquete.

They’ve even got a pitch deck!

The amorphous nature of an ad hoc network means that these mobile applications function much like magazines, and means that many of the apps can be pure content channels. For every Conoce Cuba (a local recommendation engine, a la Yelp) there’s a “APLICACION PARA ANDROID YASMANY TATTOO”— an app for a tattoo shop. Similarly, quinceañera photographers, furniture stores and more have simple apps that display portfolios or show items for sale.

Meanwhile, the most comprehensive, professionally developed app is “!!!Rapido Etecsa v2.2.1 (NEW)” which is a speed booster for the official internet channels available through the Ministry of Information’s telecoms monopoly ETECSA — imagine an NSA-branded broadband pipe.

Here’s footage of one of our studio Android test pool phones loaded up, to show how these apps tend to function:

Internet Stuff

Given the fusion of media that happens inside el paquete, it was slightly surprising to find specific folders that contained mostly web-originated content, “Humor [HD]” and “Interesantes Variados [HD]”. Both contain mostly YouTube rips (except a folder full of wallpapers), with Various Interests covering everything from celebrity gossip and makeup tutorials to occult conspiracies and gadget unboxings, and Humor covering fails, Vines, hidden camera shows, pranks, and standard vlog fare in line with our Neistatian global pubescent mood. One standout offering, a locally-produced show, is “YOsoyelMEJOR” — I’m the best — which covers experts at various things. I’m guessing mostly video games. In this episode, a dude is really good at Bejewelled 3. It’s kind of like Twitch, but narrated, and with more context of the dude’s friends and family watching.

There’s a series of local fare in folders included with both these directories that’s worth noting, and underscores the ultimate community advertising nature of these works. All the videos that were inserted as pre-roll on other content, and images that were integrated into magazines, are here, almost like the Advertiser Directory that used to run at the back of many magazines. The videos play pretty fast and loose with copyright (Bieber’s “What Do You Mean?” appears many times) so many can’t get by automated copyright infringement algorithms, but we managed to upload a few at the end of this article.

Community

What at first glance appears to be a drive of bootleg HBO shows is ultimately a nascent community finding many (often redundant) means of connection across every media available. One main folder has an .iso disk image of Revolico, Cuba’s version of Craigslist, presumably so people can load it up on their PC and browse the database at home, contacting sellers via SMS.

Another, “!Lo ultimo de la Red de Redes,” “the best of the web of webs,” has folders with all the praise, requests, and stories that paquete consumers saw fit to share, along with rips of People Are Awesome videos.

There’s even a folder for critical emails — outnumbered by praise by a magnitude of hundreds to one — including a several-years-old correspondence that sheds light on how el paquete operates. In the exchange, a petitioner gripes about the discontinuity in filenames and missing episodes of their favorite TV series, and that if they don’t hear back they’re going to take their grievance to the newspaper.

The paquete’s curator explains how occasionally content or structure is added downstream of their involvement, and even offers screenshots of the intact paquete to reassure the critic it was someone nefarious, not the curator, who tampered with the product. Meanwhile, he writes, he doesn’t even have distribution in that province, so it was a middleman, but anyway, here’s my mobile number, we can make it right.

Ultimately, as a community tool, el paquete serves to inform and connect members of the community in ways the official channels haven’t ideologically or practically acknowledged need connecting. In a sense, the network is facilitating an exchange, not of ideas, which Cubans have always had, but opportunities, which have traditionally been limited.

The paquete is more than a big dump of media. It’s a system, an economy, and maybe even a mental model for understanding how Cuba operates, in spite of, or as a result of, the otherwise antiquated media economy, with state-controlled broadcast and print networks. It serves to entertain, educate, and inform the Cuban people of what’s happening on and off the island in a way that’s unique to their cultural situation.

The next time I head back to Cuba I’m going to try to patronize as many paquete advertisers as possible, as not just as a way of getting at the Cuba that’s behind the tourism curtain, but as a show of solidarity with their resources encouraging this emerging cultural ecosystem.



Selected Cuban Advertising from El Paquete