Unwrapping el Paquete

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For decades, Cuba has remained under a strict blockade from the rest of the world. A combination of the State’s historical monopoly on broadcast, lax copyright laws and limited internet access has turned the country into an analogue ‘on-demand’ market. This has created the perfect environment for alternative sources of information to grow. 

The most significant of these alternative sources is el Paquete (which translates as: ‘The Package’): a 1TB bundle of content, delivered weekly to 600,000 subscribers, with the latest films, TV shows, magazines, documentaries, videogames, mobile apps, and YouTube videos, all for $2. Completely offline, it’s delivered through being transferred onto customers’ hard drives.

El Paquete is collated and distributed via an underground media smuggling ring. The efficiency of this ring and its networks has enabled people without internet access to obtain information just days, or even hours after it has gone online elsewhere in the world. Game of Throneswill be back this April, and as with all previous seasons, Cubans will be able to watch every chapter just hours after it’s aired by HBO. DittoThe Great British Bake Off, which also features in the bundle. 

To learn more about the phenomenon, understand the drivers behind its success and what this means to the future of the national media landscape, Flamingo tapped into its network of Global Correspondents. This network is coordinated by in-house specialist Casting team, which helps brands to connect with experts, hard-to-reach and leading-edge consumers, niche behaviours, cultural commentators and tastemakers  by maintaining relationships with connectors in global markets. We spoke to Cuban academics and people working deep within el Paquete’s distribution networks to find out more.  

Before becoming one of the main content downloaders of el Paquete through his distribution network DeltaVisión matrix, Yino [not his real name] worked for a DVD bank (in the beginning, el Paquete content was copied onto DVDs and sold to distributors). Yino creates different sections according to the feedback he receives from his subscribers. “My subscribers send emails every day asking for specific films, series, telenovelas, music and tech videos. 

“Cubans are thirsty for information. They want to see everything; they want to know everything.”

According to academic Fidel Alejandro Rodríguez, who specialises in new media and media studies, el Paquete is the result of an evolutionary process of cultural, technological, economic and political forces that have been in play for decades. It goes beyond a response to scarce internet in Cuba, he says; it’s the next step in a series of actions caused by a demand of information and access to culture that’s ingrained within the Cuban national identity. The same demand led to the creation of VHS ‘banks’ in the 1990s, and the camouflaged illegal antennas designed to catch American TV channels in the 2000s. In a country where mobile data costs half the salary of an average Cuban, connectivity is considered a luxury and a point of differentiation.

Cultural researcher Hamlet López describes el Paquete as “a socio-technical platform that initially could have been born as a kind of compensation for the lack of internet access, but now it has personality, goals and its own identity.”

In fact, el Paquete’s product is not the content itself, but the ability to distribute that content quickly. Cubans aren’t just paying for a chapter of Game of Thrones, they’re paying for the chance to watch that chapter as soon as possible after it’s aired by HBO. They need synchronicity, and el Paquete sells it every week. “What the Package capitalises on is the historically constructed and evolutionary social appropriation of different cultural values,” says Fidel Alejandro. “What is paid for is not the possession of a product, but its availability at a certain time.” 

But there are a number of factors that could affect the future of el Paquete in Cuba. The first is the increasing level of internet access in the country: In December 2018, the Cuban government enabled universal 3G mobile internet access and connectivity was slowly reaching homes in Havana.  The second is the new constitution, which might eventually toughen copyright laws and eradicate all forms of piracy. 

Roger Juaristi and Luis Miguel Marín of Cuban digital marketing agency HighVista, which introduced advertising content within el Paquete, believe that the rise of internet access will lead to the disappearance of el Paquete in the next few years. Juaristi and Marín have been using apps on their phones to access pirated online content since 2018, and claim that younger generations are more app-driven than browser-based. 

But Yino believes that as long as internet is unaffordable for many Cubans, his business will have subscribers. Older generations still need to learn how to interact with the internet, he says, so they will keep buying el Paquete until they feel comfortable enough to go online.

Brands looking to operate in Cuba need to understand its identity and the cultural values that define it, and adapt to this unique media landscape. Google now has servers in Cuba, YouTube has adapted to the connection speed of the country, and Facebook is facilitating connectivity with the rest of the world – during the recent tornado, the social platform allowed Cubans to update one another on their safety and whereabouts. 

Whatever the consequence of the changes to connectivity, Hamlet López believes that Cuba is in a privileged position. “Being this late in the world wide web scene is not a disadvantage; quite the opposite,” he says. 

“I believe that Cubans will have the opportunity that other countries didn’t have: to think about the kind of internet we want for ourselves.”

Ingrid Recio Jiménez, Flamingo