HAVANA, July 7 Huddled around a laptop at the bottom of a stairwell in Havana, a group of three teenage boys banter as they skip between video clips and music. A fourth arrives with some ice cream, which completes a scene reminiscent of teenagers killing time on YouTube. They play an amateur music video in which the singer, looking for a laugh, periodically bangs his head against the wall. Then Beyoncé. Chris Brown.
But this being Cuba—where the Internet is, for the most part, only available at some professional jobs, in foreigners’ homes, and in expensive hotels—this isn’t YouTube.
What looks like a few teenagers surfing the web is actually a small part of an only-in-Cuba business that gives locals access to content from the Internet, offline, thanks to an army of human middlemen and thousands of flash drives.
I pass my own small drive to the boy who owns the computer, and he asks me what I want. He scrolls through the little blue files on his desktop, which have labels like “movies,” “music,” “videos from Cuba,” “applications,” and “video games.” After I ask for videos from Cuban artists, he plugs my drive into his computer and asks me to come back in 10 minutes.
There are similar booths that sell El Paquete Semanal (“the packet of the week”) across Havana. Some are run casually, like this one. Others are part of more formal businesses, with signage and separate store space, that also offer services like printing or software updates.
But everyone, from the young waiters at restaurants to the lawyer who rents me his home, seems to have a source for El Paquete, their link to a connected world that would be taken for granted in most modern countries. A retired woman who plugs her flash drive into her television recommends that I watchMr. and Mrs. Smith.
My taxi driver plays local music videos from a portable player mounted on his dashboard. And when I meet with the founder of a company that functions like a Yelp for Cuba, he peppers his stories with Game of Thronesreferences. All of them are getting access to this media either by purchasing content from an El Paquete vendor, or by copying from the computer of a friend who has purchased it.
In a country where the government, as per the constitution, owns all media, El Paquete allows Cuban people to access content that would never be found on official media outlets, even if it’s nothing more subversive than the latest episode of House of Cards.
It is not a static library of files, but a weekly updated resource that includes some of the same living resources that you might find on the Internet.