Thanks to everyone for the presentation feedback! This post aims to address those lingering questions highlighted by various students regarding social media and digital business in Cuba. Due to popular demand, I’ve decided to use this post to discuss the features of el Paquete Semanal distribution as well as the technological implications of Cuba-US relations.
El Paquete Semanal – “The Weekly Packet”
Like many things in Cuba, the law does not prevent the development of a vast underground system of entertainment and news media distribution. El Paquete subscribers pay on average $2 a week for the compilation of media that is either hand-delivered to their home or exchanged at a transfer location (often a cellphone repair shop).
The chief distributor of el Paquete dissemination in Havana (that Johnny Harris had the opportunity to sit down) dispatches his team to go out and gather content. They bring it back to him for editing and organization. He says the most time-intensive aspect is searching for and embedding subtitles since a large portion of the content is pirated from American TV and movies. As of yet, the government has not taken sizable steps to eliminate el Paquete, and distributors are careful to make sure the articles and content are neither anti-regime nor controversial enough to elicit unwanted government controls. Instead, the emphasis is on providing entertainment and educational resources to consumers.
USB drives that house el Paquete are thoroughly organized for optimal usability. Each file is categorized by different folders including movies, newspapers, magazines, cell-phone applications, screenshots from online publications, and even antivirus software. In addition, el Paquete comes with HD quality and poster images in the form of thumbnail files. The arrangement by which this content is delivered to the end-consumer could not be more different than the media platforms we hold near and dear such as Netflix, Spotify and Craigslist, but the result is surprisingly similar.
The Golden Goose for el Paquete profiteers is El Revolico — the offline version of Craigslist. It runs from a file structure where users can browse thousands of listings whether it be electronics, housing rentals, or car parts. It generates sizable revenue because sellers pay to list their items. However, all exchange of money and goods occurs in-person, so that Revolico acts more as a forum/message board than an eCommerce site.
The State-Run Network
There was lingering confusion about whether locals can gain Internet access from certain cell phone providers or if the only way to access Internet is at public hotspots. As of now, all Internet services are provided by the state-owned telecommunication company ETECSA, and for the most part, users gain access via these public wifi hotspots at designated city parks. Home connections are nearly impossible to come by, and only a small subset of professionals have access at work such as government officials, authorized journalists, engineers, professors, and doctors. That being said, some people gain access through embassies or coffee shops by purchasing accounts on the black market — fueled by former government officials with Internet clearance who sell and rent their logins.
At work, Internet access is extremely limited and certain sites such as Facebook are only accessible at certain hours of the day (SnapChat is banned across the board). However, Internet speeds at workplaces and Universities operate at a faster speed than public hotspots. Internet restrictions allow the government to promote closely monitored, censored versions of platforms we use everyday. For example, EcuRed is a facsimile of Wikipedia that the government launched in 2010. The government also created a social networking site in 2013 called La Tendedera and a blogging platform called Reflejos.
Creativity in Action
The obstacles presented by the social media and digital business landscape in Cuba lead to some vary creative solutions. To answer @lenskubal ‘s question, the average PC user in Cuba does much more than a typical user in the US in terms of formatting memories, reinstalling operating systems, and obtaining expensive programs including the Adobe Suite. This is made possible by broad exchange between consumers on the contraband tech market — an interesting paradox for an island with such low Internet penetration.
Further evidence of the creative ways Cuban users circumnavigate social media restrictions include doing a basic Google search on personal wifi, and instead of clicking through the links, scrolling through the search feed to see where it will be available. Then, going elsewhere to access it (such as workplace or University wifi). In addition, people can respond to Facebook messages by replying to the email notifications while using subject to workplace restrictions.
Where does the U.S. come into play?
When formal diplomatic relations between Cuba and the U.S. were established in July 2015, people expected this to generate significant growth in Internet access for Cuban citizens. Obama’s plan for Cuban relations included the expansion of communication technology, travel to Cuba, as well as increased opportunities for telecommunication providers to establish infrastructure.
Prior to this, the US had taken other steps to open up the communications market in Cuba. Between 2009 and 2012 the U.S. Agency for International Development managed and funded ZunZuneo, a quasi-Twitter service for Cubans. The Office of Transition Initiatives department funded the service, and at its peak, ZunZuneo reached 40,000 Cuban users. Eventually, it was shut down due to a lack of financial sustainability.
In February 2015, Cuban officials announced a promotion for state-run cyber-points to allow users Internet access for a discount, but the promotion was not only cost-prohibitive (considering the average monthly Cuban salary), but also was discontinued in April. By May 2015, the Cuban government had opened 35 new internet access points with public wifi. However, lack of resources and remaining restrictions continue to limit user accessibility.
In effect, there is a huge market to be tapped in the coming years. This is evidenced by the fact that prior to March 2008, mobile phones were banned and when Raul Castro lifted the ban, the state-run telecom company ETECSA said that its subscriber base had surged by 60% by February 2009. In fact, they found that nearly 8,000 new connections were purchased in the first 10 days following the restriction removal. Ultimately, revised Cuba-US relations is fueling optimism that ICT connectivity will further improve in the years to come.