On Cuba's "Black Market"

Wednesday, September 10, 2014
Interesting article on Cuba's "black market" in technology.

From Germany's DPA news agency:

Internet ‘offline packages’ for sale are a hit on Cuba’s black market

Game of Thrones fever is beginning to die down in Cuba. The fourth season of the wildly popular medieval-setting US television series wrapped up in June.

The man who enters the back room of a private home in Havana, where it is dark and an old ventilator is thumping on the wall to ease the summer heat, is looking for something else.

“Give me the next episode of ‘Lord of the Skies,’” he says as he hands over a pen drive.

He is referring to a current “narco-novela” or “narco soap-box series” being broadcast by the Spanish-language Telemundo network in the United States.

Cuba has some of the world’s worst Internet access, which is the fault of both relentless government control and general economic backwardness. Cuba’s state-run television offers content that is low in quality. Many would say plain boring.

Yet foreign movies and television series are avidly watched on the island.

Most Cubans get to see them thanks to weekly sales of what is known as the “package.” The “package” is a weekly selection of current television series, movies and web publications that is viewed across the island, passing from hand to hand and computer to computer.

Most of the best loved television series, movies and shows are made in the United States, but viewers are also partial to the content of womens’ magazines such as the Spanish Hola!, or the Mexican

Vanidades, as well as specialized magazines such as Autobild, a German cars mag, and Sport, a sports magazine from Barcelona.

The magazines are saved and read in PDF format.

The files are first downloaded using a broadband connection, or else taped directly from cable television.

Downloading would be so ordinary as to rate no excitement in any country except Cuba, where private homes are not allowed to have Internet accounts and the most common online connection continues to be an analogue modem. Cable television is not allowed either.

The “package” starts off as a one-terabyte disk, explains Isbel Diaz, a 38-year-old computer expert who is familiar with the clandestine Internet world in Cuba. Distribution operates as a chain.

Some people are in charge of obtaining the master “package” and they sell it by dividing it up into smaller deliveries right down to the level of the small-time distributor who sells the content in small units, sometimes even personally delivering those orders to the homes of buyers.

“The hard-drive disk is taken to the distributor, and the distributor then does his or her business,” said Diaz. It is as it were an “offline Internet” service — a way of having Internet access without actually going online.

Many Cubans wait anxiously each week for the arrival of the “package” to watch their favourite series as well as to acquire bootleg computer software. An 8GB memory device can be bought for less than a dollar in Cuba.

A popular series in Cuba is the US “Cold Case” programme along with shows by the Cuban comedian Alexis Valdes, who is based in Miami.

Diaz said that those programmes are basically the Spanish-language television fare that people in Florida watch. Many users also buy foreign news programmes or Discovery Channel documentary films.

It is the rule to offer commercial programming with no political messages. Pornography is also taboo. Because of this, Diaz and others believe that Cuban authorities tolerate the making of the weekly “package,” even though it is not a legally sanctioned activity.

Otherwise, he said, “It is very suspicious that such a large amount of information contained in those ‘packages’ can be updated on a weekly basis... How many people are there in Cuba with that kind of connection, so rapid, to download those volumes of information?”

In Cuba, only state institutions or foreign firms are entitled to use broadband connections or satellite antennae.

That is why downloading the Internet content, “has to be from state centres, with or without the authorization of the bosses,” said Pablo, another Internet bootlegger who will not give his full name because the activity is illegal on the island.

Pablo, trained as a physician, sells “packages” from the back room of his home in Havana.

He explained why the “packages” are so popular: “It’s because Cuban television lacks this kind of material,” he said.

The black-market Internet content packages are becoming so widespread that small local entrepreneurs, who are authorised to do “self-employed” work within Cuba’s communist system, are now starting to advertise their businesses on the “packages.”

They pay a special fee to the distributors to promote their businesses with videos and photos.

Local musicians are also taping their reggae music shows for distribution as part of “the package”. There are also people willing to offer other kinds of programmes and video for dissemination in Cuba.

“‘The package’ that exists currently and is being sold does not satisfy my consumption needs nor that of many of my peers,” says Yaima Pardo, 34.

She is a television director and filmmaker and believes that many people her age want something else. Pardo is in the planning stages of producing a “Weekly Independent Package” that would go by its

Spanish acronym, PaSA (a play on the word pass or pass along).

Pardo and her colleagues want to distribute PaSA for free in Havana and other cities.

“I see it as the kind of Internet we could create ourselves” if we had regular access to the web, she said.

The Internet television and video package Pardo would distribute would also include political topics and taboo material, because there is “nothing wrong” with that, she said.

“We would like it to operate as a kind of ‘citizen’s journalism report,’” she added, “that people produce their own content with social objectives, to be included on the disk.”

Pardo also said she would have no objection to including “14ymedio” (“14andahalf”), a digital newspaper produced by the Cuban dissident Yoani Sanchez and launched in May. Sanchez and her fellow dissident journalists are periodically producing issues of “14ymedio” in PDF format that they distribute clandestinely on the island.

For now, the success of the Internet “package” is directly tied to the commercial aspect.

It is hard to measure just how widespread the practice is, because there are no official figures, but in cities such as Havana it is common to hear people talking about how they are anxiously awaiting the arrival of their “package,” be it on Monday or Tuesday, depending on the service provider.

In conversations, people seem to be well aware of the latest television fads outside Cuba.

At Pablo’s Internet shop a female buyer refers to the show she is most interested in at this time: she just loves MasterChef, a cooking show that has become very popular in the United States, as well as in Spain and Latin America.