Jan 5th, 2017
The ‘internet of the disconnected’ and the Cuban media revolution
Obama, the Rolling Stones and even Karl Lagerfeld – Cuba has grabbed headlines this year as the mega-famous chip away at the country’s long international isolation. Behind the scenes, though, a quieter revolution is brewing. Cubans, who spent decades on a restricted information diet dictated by the state, are now using homegrown ingenuity to access foreign media and create some of their own.
El Paquete Semanal – a network of electronic files passed around physically, hand to hand, via USB hard drives – is the glue that holds the emerging Cuban media landscape together. Spanish for ‘the weekly package’, it’s also been called ‘the internet of the disconnected’. Only about 5% of Cubans have access to the free and uncensored internet, and then only sporadically, but by most estimates, some version of El Paquete reaches millions of Cubans.
In January 2016, I visited Cuba as part of a team of researchers from the advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, eventually producing a report, The Promise of Cuba, about changes in the country. While in Havana, I was able to meet one of the many “suppliers” of El Paquete, who agreed to sell us a copy and be interviewed on condition of anonymity. He said that El Paquete had begun in the 1990s as a bundle of videocassettes, and gradually expanded in scope and size with the falling cost of information storage.