El Paquete: Opiate of the Cuban Masses

I’m not a particularly heavy consumer of the “package” (love the typically Cuban double entendre) but I know what I want, my ‘Paquete’ guy knows what I want, and I stray only for research and on recommendation. Samantha Bee; Transparent; Lie to Me (swoon, swoon Tim Roth); The Lobster; Sully; Captain Fantastic – here, we get any series you’re watching for $1 a season. Another buck gets me six or seven films playing in a theater near you.

What first turned me on to The Paquete in a hot and heavy way was when I discovered it also contains all manner of professional sports. My Paquete guy, Yuri, knows: any Knicks or Golden State game and all pro tennis, bring it on! I’ll take a Redskins game or any old Monday Night Football once in a while, too. I’m a life-long sports fan and active participant, still, and if you ask me, sports transcend. Watching and playing sports – the most democratic and unequivocal of all human pursuits – thrills me. I know some of you don’t get it and actively reject organized athletics. That’s cool, but I do think it’s your loss.

Enjoying sports via The Paquete however, has its quirks and downsides. Lots of it comes from ESPN en español, so none of the sportcasters are familiar, they’re using Spanish sports slang I’m still learning, and they can be terrible chismosos. Listen, I don’t want to hear about Carmelo Anthony’s new car – just call the game asere! Another downside is when you’re fast forwarding through the commercials, the total length of the program is indicated on the menu bar. So if Team X or Player Y is getting walloped, the length of the menu bar serves as spoiler and at a certain point it becomes obvious that a mid-game rally or late match come-from-behind is impossible. Knowing which side will reign victorious before or mid-way through the game takes a lot of the fun out of it. But ‘del lobo un pelo’ as we say here: something’s better than nothing.

For a fairly new phenomenon (within the past 8 years or so), The Paquete is making a huge impact. When I moved to Havana in 2002, most neighborhoods had a person – young, old, home-bound – with an impressive VHS (remember those?!) collection who made a few extra bucks renting them out. Their bread and butter was mostly Hollywood blockbusters several years out of date and the latest soap operas from Brazil and Mexico. The more technologically savvy and those with more financial resources eventually transitioned to DVDs and soon thereafter, businesses cropped up where the movies or series or soaps you wanted were copied directly on to a memory stick (‘pingüitas’ in Conner slang, for their form and propensity to catch viruses). The soaps and flicks were then re-copied and re-copied as you shared them with friends. The final stage of this digital evolution is The Paquete.

In the simplest terms, The Paquete is one terabyte of media downloaded (mostly via a super speedy connection provided by the State and motivation a-plenty for some people to hang on to their low-salaried State jobs) every Monday and then shared the length and breadth of the island via private businesses dedicated to just that. I’m fairly certain this is a ‘grey market’ activity, but according to ABC News, The Paquete is the #1 employer in Cuba today.

Accessing The Paquete is easy: within a 5-block radius of Cuba Libro, for instance, there are no fewer than half a dozen private businesses – usually in the entryway to a residential home or building rented out for this purpose – where you can go every Monday to download the entire terabyte of new offerings on an external hard drive. Or you can pick and choose what you like. Different distributors organize their offerings differently and prices and quality vary. Some folks I know price by the gig – 8 gigs for 10CUP (about 35 cents) is one of the cheapest I’ve found – others, by the number of movies or episodes you want. Some movies have been hand-filmed in cinemas (where you can hear audiences laughing at the funny bits and get a glimpse of the guy returning from the concession stand with his popcorn), while others are BluRay or high definition. There is also home delivery service of The Paquete where the distributor arrives at your door and copies directly on to your computer whatever you request (free anti-virus included).

It’s worth mentioning that The Paquete contains more than just sports and Hollywood movies and series – the funny (and not so) tapes from Havana’s police cameras; digital magazines produced in Cuba (of which there are many, Vistar being the most high-profile); erotica (AKA soft porn); La Voz; music videos; computer games and more. Super events like the Stones concert in Havana and the Chanel show are also popular and usually available in days following the actual extravaganza. Recently, Zoológico, a Cuban-produced soap opera deemed unfit for broadcasting on state-run TV has been a popular Paquete request.

Games of Thrones, The Walking Dead, West World: visitors are often shocked at how plugged in and current Cubans are. Me? I’m still shocked at the pervasiveness of the ‘Cuba frozen in time/stuck in amber’ myth. There’s now Wifi the entire length of the Malecón (to give you an idea of the type of tourist here nowadays, I actually had someone ask me last week what the Malecón was. Dios mío) and in parks from Mariano to Nueva Gerona, Quivicán to Guantánamo. A pilot project will install broadband in 2,000 Habana Vieja homes soon and Cubans will begin receiving data on their mobile phones this year. Every medical professional has full internet access via Infomed and those accounts are often “shared,” multiplying users two- or three-fold. In universities, the national network of Joven Clubes, at work: Cubans are way more connected than you ever imagined.

I know a lot of readers may have expected and wanted my new post to be about Fidel’s death and I’m sorry to disappoint. Rest assured, I’ll get around to it (once I’ve further wrapped my head around it). But I will provide you with this bit of intel straight from my friends who work distributing The Paquete: during the 9-day national mourning period, these folks made money hand over fist, working double time, until midnight most nights, copying movies and series and sports for Cubans anxious to watch anything besides the ‘round-the-clock Fidel documentaries being shown on State TV.

I gotta go.There’s a hot Murray-Djokovic match I’m in the middle of watching.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

17 responses to “El Paquete: Opiate of the Cuban Masses

  1. Pingback: El Paquete: Opiate of the Cuban Masses | Cuba on Time

  2. Mary Frazier, Moraga CA

    Hi Conner. This is awesome. So much tech in so little time. And to be able to get the sports is fantastic. ¡Go Warriors!

  3. Mauricio Diaz

    The latest modality (did I invent it??) is watching the new Walking Dead episode LIVE with my Cuban gf by me broadcasting to her via IMO. She “can’t wait” until they have the episode with subtitles Tuesdayish.

    Take THAT! Haha

  4. Ophelia

    Conner, thanks for the timely post. I am planning to travel to Cuba this year and I would like to bring some DVDs and boxed sets to friends and family for gift-giving. If you think this is a good idea, what kind of series or movies do you think people would like to watch or own?

    • Hi Ophelia. With the Paquete avaialble everywhere, I would choose some other gift than boxed DVDs. Sets of sheets and towels are always appreciated, hoodie sweathsirts (its FINALLY cold here!), high end facial creams for women, shaving razors and cream for men/women, large (16 gig or larger) memory sticks/external hard drives, fun/exotic food like shrink wrapped jamon serrano or parmesan cheese, mixed nuts, and the like. Have a great trip

  5. Rico

    Good stuff! thanks for sharing your insider intel. When I was last in Cuba (2014) internet was virtually useless, hard to locate a wifi spot, expensive and so darn slow. Nice to see tech progress making its way a whooping 90 miles to Cuba.

    By the way, the Murray-Djokovich match this morning (in California) was a thriller. Djoko choking in the 2nd set trying to close it out, but them able to get it together and beat Murray in the 3rd. Some incredible shot making by both guys. Gotta love The Tennis Channel, live.

    And how bout them Raiders? big wild card game today vs Texans, couple of very good teams resorting to 3rd string QB’s to do the job. My bet is Raiders win by 3 points.

    Keep up the good work, love reading your blog…

  6. Eric Graves

    Great article! I recently looked at the most recent Paquete my friend had here in Trinidad and I’m astounded by the amount of stuff on there. I’m gonna pirate some to take home.

  7. I never knew this! America, as you know, believes Cuba’s “isolation” is all encompassing. I’m sure Cubans can watch as much American baseball as they want?
    Btw – I’ll be in Cuba with my two sons in June. I would love to come by the book store. And might you consider an author event there? Reading? I would be honored.
    Here’s some info in me, including Amazon link to latest book.




    • Hi David. Thanks for getting in touch. We do author events but its important that all of our community can participate which means there needs to be a spanish component (ie the book(s) in question available in Spanish or at the very least, Spanish translation/interpretation during the event). please drop us a line at cubalibrohavana(at)gmail(dot)com if youd like to pursue the possibility.

  8. Fiona Gray

    I have been reading your blogs recently before i travelled to havana and now im home in scotland i can relate to lots more of your great writing. I spent 17 days in vedado chasing deliveries of essentials,finding wifi parks , queuing for icecream , studying the cars choking on exhaust fumes and meeting some fantastic cubans . Loved every minute and cant wait until I return xx

  9. Hey Conner, new to this site and I’m really enjoying your stuff. About to go for my 2nd prorroga here in Havana, and living in a casa with in-house wifi. (don’t ask me how many 5-hour Nauta cards I go through in a week) My host has a huge new Sony TV but, despite the wifi connection, hasn’t really clued in to the new Cuba digital programming reality. So for his birthday I went out and got him 12 hours of shark documentaries en Espanol and started him on GoT last night. He’s riveted.

    I’m a digital pack rat, currently carrying 20TB of files with me, but new to the Cuban scene. The new shops are great, but I’m running into quality issues. The season of GoT I got looks marginal, at best. I found a few things in HD, but most of what’s out there is heavily compressed and looks crappy to non-Cuban eyes. So now I need to figure out where to get the ‘good stuff!’ Care to share any insights into who is offering the best files? In Vedado preferably, but whatever. Is your paquete guy a secret? And the home delivery thing sounds intriguing. For one, I’m in search of GoT in true HD. That would be an interesting follow-up post — a comparison of the best video shops in Havana.

    If you feel like blowing some net credit, check the link for a huge mtn of recent Havana street photos.

    • Hola. I swear by my paquete guy Yuri. Knows his stuff, has most things in HD or BluRay. He’s currently at Calle 12 and 19 (bw 19 and 21) b]ut dropped in lst week to let us know he’s HOPEFULLY moving back to his old stomping grounds steps from Cuba Libro soon. We hope so!! suerte. Cheers and thank for writing in

  10. Pingback: COVID-19 & Cuba | Here is Havana

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