Since the Revolution of 1959, Cuba has been deprived of information. Media and newspapers are heavily censored. Only Party officials, embassies, and a few other select individuals have access to the Internet. However, the Communist Party claims that this is rapidly changing and that Cuba is constantly increasing its Internet access. The Communist Party has opened several wifi hot spots for the general population and will now allow over a quarter of the population to have Internet connections in their homes.
While this claim might seem impressive, it is misleading. Despite the touted improvements, fewer than five percent of the country’s population is connected to the web. Cuba still has high restrictions on Internet use, few wifi access points, and high prices, and most of the state’s claims refer in reality to the country’s tightly controlled state intranet.
Home Internet access is also highly restricted. Only doctors, state officials, and employees of embassies or foreign companies have access at all, and in the form of a dial-up connection that is only open for a limited amount of hours a month. In any case, it is so slow that practically the only thing people can use it for is checking their email.
One friend of mine is lucky enough to have 50 hours of dial-up Internet a month because of her job in Cuba’s Ministry of Culture. But here is how she described her connection: “Because this Internet connection is so slow, you can only use it for basic things. I use it to check my email, to look at Yahoo. Yahoo is very slow. I can go to the Yahoo page, go take a shower and once I’m done getting ready the page starts to load.”
A few years ago, foreign media heaped praise on Cuba for establishing a number of wifi hotspots. But there are a mere 84 of these hotspots for a country with 11.27 million. They are located in open-air parks, making them crowded and uncomfortable, especially when the weather is bad. Moreover, access to these hotspots is expensive for the average Cuban. An hour of Internet costs two dollars—ten percent of an average monthly salary. On top of that, you need to buy a permanent account or a NAUTA card that contains a scratch-off access code and password in order to access the state portal for Internet connection. These cards can be found at state stores, but because of their popularity there is usually a long waiting line to get one and sometimes they run out. Another option is to buy them from street vendors for three dollars or in a tourist hotel for five.
Problems don’t stop once you are connected to the Internet. Warning messages from Google and other applications will alert you that “your activity may be monitored” and that your connection is “not secure,” meaning that there is a slight chance that you’re being watched. Secondly, the connection is so unbearably slow that your options are limited. Forget about Skype or Facebook calls. Forget about watching videos on YouTube. Some pages won’t even load. Sometimes there are so many people connected that the whole system crashes.
Most people I talked to in Cuba didn’t have dial-up and had never used the wifi hot spots. But they weren’t entirely disconnected from the world. They had another option: El Paquete Semanal—“the Weekly Package.”
What is El Paquete? Every week, an unknown team compiles illegal web content—including Hollywood’s latest movies, music from around the world, iPhone and Android apps, websites, and news articles from sources like The New York Times—and distributes it via external hard drive for a small fee of one to two dollars a month. In short, it is the “Internet without Internet.” On receiving the “package,” subscribers can copy whatever they like onto their own hard drives or computers. It is cheaper than buying Internet access, plus you can find information that is censored on state-run connections. In addition, the Castro regime appears to completely ignore the underground operation, most likely because its producers take care not to include anything overtly anti-Castro.
Some of my neighbors had ancient desktop computers or laptops that they used to access the media from El Paquete; others had DVD players with a hard drive port. External hard drives are not that difficult to get in Cuba—if you have the time and money. You can get them in stores at a high price or on the black market. Alternately, some people, like my neighbors, have friends from other countries who bring them hard drives when they visit. Everyone I talked to had a different top pick from El Paquete’s content: While my older neighbors enjoyed reading The New York Times or PDF copies of The Economist, the younger ones were all up to date on the latest American music, movies, and TV shows.
El Paquete is so popular that most of my friends asked me whether I had a hard drive to spare or whether I could buy them one. In the absence of independent media, clandestine methods like El Paquete are the only ways to get unbiased and uncensored entertainment and news. By now, it is most Cubans’ primary method of receiving outside information—at an affordable price and, more importantly, outside the Party’s control.