This is Cuba’s Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify – all without the internet
How media smugglers get Taylor Swift, Game of Thrones, and the New York
Times to Cubans every week
by Johnny Harris on September 21, 2015
This is “El Paquete”: A Cuban media platform is based on a web of human
In Cuba there is barely any internet. Anything but the state-run TV
channels is prohibited. Publications are limited to the state-approved
newspapers and magazines. This is the law. But, in typical Cuban
fashion, the law doesn’t stop a vast underground system of entertainment
and news media distributors and consumers.
“El Paquete Semanal” (The Weekly Package) is a weekly trove of digital
content—everything from American movies to PDFs of Spanish
newspapers—that is gathered, organized and transferred by a human web of
runners and dealers to the entire country. It is a prodigious and
I went behind the scenes in Havana to film how the Paquete works. Check
out the video above to see how Cubans bypass censorship to access the
media we take for granted.
There are two Paquete king pins in Havana: Dany and Ali. These two
compete to develop the best collection of weekly digital content and in
the fastest turnaround time possible for their subscribers. It’s a
competitive market playing out in the shadows of a tightly controlled
Paquete subscribers pay between $1-$3 per week to receive the collection
of media. It’s either delivered to their home or transferred at a pick
up station, usually in the back of a cell phone repair shop, a natural
cover for this type of operation.
Dany relies on data traffickers to deliver the files, but said he didn’t
know how those sources obtained the content in the first place. I
gathered that most of it is being digitized via illegal satellites that
are hidden in water tanks on rooftops. It’s unclear how they get a hold
of the content sourced from the internet (digital news publications,
YouTube videos, and pirated movies, for example). Only 5 percent of
Cubans can access the uncensored world wide web, and when they do, the
connection is horrendously slow. It’s not the type of connection that
would support downloading hundreds of gigs of content every week.
Instead, some speculate that content is physically brought onto the
island by incomers from Miami.
I sat down with Dany in his pink-walled apartment in Havana. While I
expected a mob-like character to be at the root of this extensive black
market of pirated media, I found a 26 year-old guy who looked more like
a stoned surf bum than the conductor of a giant black market operation.
Dany’s office shows off a lot more brawn than he does. It’s a simple
room with two gigantic computers, their innards visible, tricked out
lights arbitrarily flickering. Hard drives are littered around the room,
stacked and labeled. Two large screens are full of Windows file
directories, and in the corner of one of the screens is a live feed from
Telemundo, a popular Spanish-language station, with the words “Grabando”
(recording) in the corner.
“Everybody has their responsibility,” Dany told me. “Everyone gathers a
certain type of content and they bring it to me. I organize it, edit it,
and get it ready for distribution. And then we send it through our
This is hard work. “A lot of the time is spent finding and embedding
subtitles” he laments. Much of the content is pirated from American TV
and movies. He and his team have scour the internet for any existing
The government hasn’t tried to stamp out the Paquete, and Dany works to
keep it that way. “We don’t put anything in that is anti-revolutionary,
subversive, obscene, or pornographic. We want it to stay about
entertainment and education,” he says, and I catch a glimpse of the
shrewd business behind the baby face and board shorts.
It might as well be Netflix
A look into an edition of the Paquete reveals a vast array of content
ranging from movies that are in US theaters right now to iPhone
applications. Havana-based artist Junior showed me around. He’s a
pensive and gentle 34-year-old who is remarkably talented, judging by
the stunning art pieces that hang from the wall. Junior paints and
tattoos full time but he used to be a Paquete dealer. He’s now just a
consumer. He takes me through the 934GB of data he has recently
transferred from his provider.
I’m immediately struck by how polished the Paquete system is. As Junior
files through the meticulously organized files, I realize it mirrors the
consumption of a typical internet user. He opens the movie folder, and
we browse through dozens of movies, many still in US theaters. All of
them come in HD and with subtitles and poster art as the thumbnail of
the file. The videos are high quality with accurate subtitles. I have to
remind myself that we are not browsing Netflix, instead we are looking
at an offline computer that is displaying content that has physically
traveled to get here. The methods couldn’t be more different but the
result is strangely similar.
He moves onto TV shows. “So do you think they have—” I start but am
interrupted “they have everything” Junior says emphatically. Sure enough
the show I was thinking of, Suits, was there, with the latest episodes
ready to watch.
We continue to browse and look into some of the more boring but most
interesting part of the Paquete: There are folders dedicated to
antivirus software that can be updated weekly to the latest versions.
“But there’s no internet, so there can’t be viruses” I say. “Most of
this stuff has touched the internet in some way. This software protects
against anything that has snuck its way on into the content.”
Junior clicks over to the “Apps” folder and shows me a smorgasbord of
iOS and Android apps. Many are gaming apps with updates that can be
loaded in every week. But there is another called “A la mesa” a
Yelp-type app that helps connect clients to restaurants in Cuba using
maps, reviews, and in-app menus. Then there’s the PDF folder which holds
newspapers, magazines, and screenshot material from dozens of online
publications, everything from tech news to sports. It’s the internet in
In addition to the subscription fees, revenue for the Paquete comes from
a classifieds section called “Revolico.” Within the Paquete, you click a
file that opens Revolico in your browser. But it’s an offline version
that runs from a file structure on your local computer. There, you can
click around as if you were browsing craigslist, looking and thousands
of listings of everything from house rentals to big screen TVs to car tires.
Sellers pay to list their items and you can get a premium listing if you
pay more. Revolico is the cash cow of the Paquete. It also happens to be
one of the first semblances of an advertising market for Cubans who have
lived in a world of central planning and price control.
The depth and breadth of the Paquete is astounding, so much so that I,
an American who lives and works on the uncensored internet, feel a
twinge of envy that I don’t have the Paquete delivered to my house every
week for $2.
When I asked Dany if he is afraid that the internet will wipe out his
operation, without missing a beat, he replied, “Nah. We offer a product
that is like one giant webpage where you can see all the content you
want for a very low price. The internet might take over some clients,
but we offer something different and very effective.”
“Speed is key to beating the competition,” Dany said. When asked how
quickly he can get a movie or TV show after it airs in the US he says
“the next day.” Last year, Dany started sending a hard drive on a plane
to the far corners of the island.
After spending a week in Cuba, it was refreshing to talk to someone with
the appetite to grow an enterprise. Most people I spoke to in Cuba work
for the state and have zero incentive to deliver anything above the bare
minimum. They get paid the same either way. Even the private restaurants
lack the fervor of a competitive business since the economic environment
they work in is still completely controlled even if they themselves are
But in Dany’s office, I felt the thrill of cunning innovation and
strategy at work. I got the sense that something big is happening. And
indeed, I wasn’t just standing in some dingy apartment, but rather what
may be largest media distribution company in the history of Cuba.
Source: This is Cuba’s Netflix, Hulu, and Spotify – all without the
internet – Vox –