Alex, 28, rides his bike all over a neighborhood in Havana delivering el paquete. It doesn’t matter that there’s a “stay home” order in place—he goes out wearing a mask and carrying a chloride solution. His delivery is now more precious than ever precisely because of the quarantine: Alex provides his customers with information and entertainment. He delivers the Cuban “offline internet.”
“I have almost doubled my clients since the lockdown started,” he says.
El paquete (“the package”) began around 2008. Today, it’s a hard drive with nearly a terabyte of downloaded magazines, films, music, games, and soap operas (even from Turkey). Most clients pay about $2 or $3 for the whole thing. You can find there the latest Hollywood releases, Jimmy Fallon’s show, Rachel Maddow’s, Korean dramas, and any popular Hispanic or American TV show you can think of. It’s digital content managed through human infrastructure. If you don’t want to buy everything on the drive, you can even pay for a certain amount of episodes by unit or data weight, as if you were buying apples, cash only. Then someone like Alex transfers the content to your own devices.
Hence el paquete. Here’s how the distribution network works. There are at least three places where the content is selected and downloaded; we don’t know much about where this happens, but they seem to be locations with internet bandwidth unheard of in Cuba. Two of the main roots are known as Omega and Crazy Boy. They supply intermediaries, who in turn sell the content to deliverers like Alex. Then, this last link of the chain will bring their drives around for clients to choose what they want and then transfer the content for their personal use. Sometimes they meet at a delivery point in public, and sometimes they go to clients’ homes.
The collections travel the whole 777-mile- long island, from east to west, through a hand-to-hand network, with the help of bus drivers who carry the content spread beyond Havana. At least, until the virus hit and the inter-province transportation was suspended. Some of the deliverers also stopped working after late March, when most of the measures were enacted in Cuba. Those who kept going out have seen a surge in demand. Despite the economic uncertainty, more people are buying entertainment content, and many of those who already bought it before, have now more time to watch it.
This unofficial system is particularly important now that the country is in lockdown. As of late May, Cuba has seen about 2,000 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus and 83 deaths.* The government says that the pandemic is “controlled” on the island. But lockdown measures have not yet been lifted, out of fear of a worse outbreak.
El paquete is necessary because streaming is far too expensive for the vast majority of people in Cuba. In 2016, about a year and a half after the thaw between the U.S. and Cuba began, Netflix launched service on the island for $7.99 a month. At that time, the internet was available in Cuba—but regular citizens (meaning those who don’t have a position that provides with online access) had to go to a public Wi-Fi hot spot and pay $2 per hour—a lot of money in a country where the average monthly salary is $30.
Most public Wi-Fi hot spots are located in parks or street corners, full of people seeking good signals for their phones, talking to relatives abroad in messy and loud video calls. It’s not exactly the finest place to read, let alone watch something. The bandwidth would not allow it anyway. Today, there are more internet options—but they remain too expensive for most people and don’t provide great service.
The price of these public Wi-Fi hot spots has now dropped to 70 cents an hour, but that is still out of reach for too many. In 2017, the country saw the debut of Nauta Hogar, Cubans’ first broadband service. Its cheapest plan is $15 for 30 hours a month (during the pandemic it’s 40 hours), but it’s available in only a few specific areas. Mobile data was also expanded beginning in December 2018. So far, the cheapest plan is $5 per 400 MB of data or 10GB for $45. It runs out really quickly, even if you are careful to limit the time of connection and avoid videos or any other heavy content. Even so, since March 8 mobile data traffic has risen 92 percent and Nauta Hogar 96 percent, according to Cuba’s telecom company, Etecsa. It does not necessarily mean a significant increase of users, but rather the same people ending more time online.
This year the Global Digital Yearbook reported Cuba as a country has above average internet penetration, according to the amount of users. But Cubans’ use of the web is intermittent and occasional. I myself created a hotspot with my phone to connect with my computer, and I am hopping online and offline while gathering information for this piece to save data.
All of this has made the lockdown challenging. While philosophers in the U.S. and other wealthy countries talk about the split screen as the visual metaphor of the new era, Zoom is not available in Cuba. Even if it were, we could barely use it because of the internet´s limitations. Outside of the government, there are no virtual events, full remote working, or online teachers delivering a video class or a conference to their students. Cuban students watch classes on TV and talk to their teachers on the phone. Some of them, at least.
Early on in the pandemic, there was an attempt to enable digital commerce. For the first time ever, some big stores were selling goods through a website, with delivery service. Two weeks later, the system collapsed because of the high demand and the lack of infrastructure to support it and respond. “If we had already advanced further, it would have been possible to better face the scenario that COVID-19 has imposed on us,” Cuban President Miguel Díaz-Canel said regarding e-commerce.
In the meantime, Cubans have—again—created their own systems. For instance, people using WhatsApp and Telegram groups for sales of vegetables, oil, poultry, baked goods, etc. The providers notify the group members about the available goods.
These systems—the physical delivery of digital content, the jury-rigged e-commerce—work, but they have been taped together. In the pandemic, the failures of the Cuban internet are all the more evident, and all the more limiting to the people who would use it.
Correction, June 1, 2020: Due to an editing error, this piece misstated the most up-to-date figures for the novel coronavirus in Cuba. There have been about 2,000 confirmed cases and 83 deaths in the country.