illustration

[context]

Creativity is the capacity human beings have to generate new ideas. This capacity tends to flourish in extremes or times of crises, although not exclusively. When creativity emerges as a response to conditions of emergency or scarcity, it acquires predominance in all areas of cultural, economic, and social organization, as is the case of Cuba.

The Cuban political and economic system has gone through multiple stages of crisis since the implementation of socialism in the 1960s and, consequently, the nationalization of private enterprises, both domestic and foreign. This step, which marked the process of centralization of the economy in the hands of the State, was also accompanied by the control of the mass media. The new government tried to conduct its political project while being isolated by its geographical position and facing pressures economic, political, and cultural in nature.

After the fall of the socialist camp in 1990 and the tightening of the U.S. embargo on Cuba, a collapse of the economy, known by the euphemistic name of “Periodo Especial en Tiempos de Paz” (Special Period in Peacetime), led to an unparalleled recession from which the country has yet to recover. As a result, creative practices were accentuated and became essential to guarantee survival. Thus, a series of vernacular economic activities emerged, as a centralized and planned economy was unable to meet the basic needs of society.

Unofficial activities or activities beyond the reach of public regulation have been present in every economic system. However, in the case of Cuban communism, there is a notorious gray zone in the practice of the informal economy. On the one hand, the State understands many of these practices as “necessary” in social terms and allows them to be exercised, though cannot legalize them at the speed with which they develop. The State simply maintains a complicit silence as long as the practice or trade does not influence the economic-political processes or plans of the State. As a result, we have a concept to name the activities that are not protected or regulated by the government. We call them alegal practices.

The development of the black market grew so much that it became the place where Cuban citizens found practically everything they needed of their basic necessities. In this scenario, phenomena that are very well organized and are a naturalized part of the daily life of Cuban citizens have taken root. Perhaps the most popular of them all is the Paquete Semanal (Weekly Package). It is a compendium of one terabyte files that are renewed weekly and distributed throughout the country, through hard disks and USB sticks. It includes a wide variety of digital content (movies, TV series, soap operas, anime, manga, music, video clips, web shows, antivirus updates, video games, mobile applications, magazines, sports, news, humor, and software), between 15,000 and 18,000 files, depending on the week and its distributor (matriz or sub-matriz). They have mostly been collected thanks to piracy, naturalized in a country where it has become the only means for the consumption of digital media. The matrices have self-imposed two limitations concerning the Paquete Semanal: they do not include pornography or material with political content.

To understand the genesis of this phenomenon, we must go back to events that occurred four decades ago, when in the ’60s of the last century the new government attempted to conduct its political project but was faced with limited access to international media. This led Fidel Castro to express in 1966: “(…) we have nationalized part of the land, the subsoil, the banks, foreign trade, education, medicine (…) Well, let us declare today nationalized also culture, science, art and all the literature required to carry forward the new University.” In this way, copies of materials were officially created in Cuba, which circulated freely at the national level without respecting international copyright laws.

[distribution]1

When we talk about the Paquete Semanal, the most interesting thing is not the size of the file or its folder architecture, but the scope it has achieved, to the point of being the most popular informal phenomenon in the country.

To understand its scope, it is essential to analyze the beginnings and background of its distribution system.2 It dates back to the 1970s when informal book rental businesses sprung up throughout the island. The business was successful, but the entrepreneurs faced a permanent challenge: sourcing new products. Importing books was impossible for these small informal businesses due to geopolitical factors and their illegal status. The entrepreneurs realized that collaborating with equivalent rental places in other cities was the best way to acquire new books. A nationwide network for the exchange, purchase, and the sale of novels began to develop. This system provided fresh products and gave customers access to new titles on a regular basis.

Rental prices fluctuated in line with the economic, political, and social developments the country was going through, which had an impact on the value of the national currency (CUP). Between 1970-1975 it was 10 cents3 in CUP, which is equivalent to less than 1 cent4 in US dollars (USD). Between 1976 and 1980, prices rose to 1 CUP, about 5 cents USD. In the 1990s it rose to 5 CUP, about 25 cents USD, a rather high price if we consider the very serious economic crisis that marked that decade and the beginning of the next one.

In the late 1990s, Cubans acquired Betacam and VHS video players. The owners of alternative rental businesses adapted once again to the new formats. At this time, the first organization of an audiovisual media package was consolidated from Havana to the provincial capitals and cities in the interior of the island. This hierarchical distribution structure continued to develop during the next two decades.

During this period, rental prices were established for the new service. Cassettes with one movie were rented for 5 pesos CUP, 25 cents USD. Those that included three or more films recorded at a lower quality cost 10 pesos CUP, 50 cents USD.

In the mid-2000s, both ownership and entry of electronic devices into the country were legalized by the Cuban state. Internet access, however, was not yet available, so the support in which the contents circulated in these years primarily on CD and DVD. With the absence of the Internet, the businesses that rented audiovisual materials became stronger, this time using more modern technology, but maintaining similar prices and the structures as their predecessor companies. The cost of renting a CD or DVD was 5 pesos CUP, 25 cents USD no matter how many movies they had.

The growing presence of satellite television antennas created new opportunities for the network. With this technology, it was possible to record live broadcasts from Miami. This informal system of installing satellite reception was more strictly pursued by the government because of the political content of many of the channels. They even used low-altitude airplanes to detect signals from satellite dishes. Their goal was to locate them, confiscate them, and impose severe fines on the owners of the equipment. It was a popular practice in densely populated cities, such as Havana, where this practice has continued to exist on a smaller scale until today.

The changes in media and formats for accessing information also led to the diversification of available content. Low-quality pirated movies recorded in theaters were the first materials downloaded from the Internet by the network operators of Cuban state-run centers.

The price for access to foreign channels at home from a shared satellite antenna varied in price depending on the number of channels available. In general, it ranged between 240 and 480 CUP, equivalent to 10 and 20 USD, respectively.

Over the decades, alternative media services grew considerably. Thanks to the partial democratization of digital technology, the beginnings of Internet use in government institutions, and satellite dishes, these businesses could select content for their clientele. In these years, a new term emerged to refer to those who collected and trafficked content for subsequent distribution: they were called “matrices”. This term comes from “matrix”, which means “place of origin, the beginning of the chain”. In the mid-2000s, the matrices began to develop identity brands, visual styles, and logos.

At the end of that decade, the Cuban State began to offer licenses for cuentapropistas or entrepreneurs. For the first time since the advent of the Revolution, a new, highly regulated business sector was legalized. This change was one of the most politically and socially significant for Cuba since 1959, in that it allowed alternative media businesses to have legal protection for the first time in 40 years.

The cuentapropistas were able to apply to the Ministry of Labor and Social Security for a work license in the category of “Comprador - Vendedor de discos” (Buyer-seller of records). With this legal change, the commercial activities that boosted the informal circulation of audiovisuals evolved once again. For the first time, CD and DVD sellers could operate with shelves in public view. A considerable number of stores were quickly opened throughout Cuba.

By then, hard disks, USB sticks, and computers were increasingly common technologies used in the domestic space, but the vast majority of Cubans did not have access to the Internet. Institutional spaces with Internet access increased thanks to a change in state policy. These conditions encouraged the naturalization of downloading content from the web and then sharing it with those who lacked connectivity. It was not long before casual downloading became a new alternative business and the next step in the evolution of media circulation in Cuba began.

Around 2008, this new sharing economy was formalized with a name and a structure and thus emerged the Paquete Semanal. At this stage, the matrices became stronger and began to distribute large amounts of digital media. The matrices are formed by workgroups in charge of downloading and cataloging content for certain folders. Currently, two main matrices distribute to countless sub-matrices throughout the country. These two matrices are Estudio Odisea and OMEGA. Both have at least two sub-matrices in each of the main cities of the island. In turn, these sub-matrices work with many other copy points and delivery persons, so-called Paqueteros, who have direct contact with the citizens who consume the Paquete Semanal.

[structure]

The economic structure of this phenomenon is horizontal, without hierarchies of power, and transparent at each level, from the matriz to the client. In each of the nodes that make up the distribution network, those involved are their own bosses and manage the internal economic dynamics adapted to the specific conditions of each locality. Although, in general, there are some standard prices, each sub-matriz in different cities or each Paquetero establishes its economic system, according to its own needs.

[01] MATRIZ

The Matriz is the apex in the distribution structure of the Paquete and its main compilers. They are the ones who invest the most in the purchase of digital media. They hire workgroups who through varied modes of internet access (many using the internet connection from government work centers) are in charge of downloading digital media for the Paquete’s different folders and bringing this data to the office of the Matriz. In this space, there are usually large files and powerful computers that are managed by workers who work 24-hour shifts to copy all the files and create hundreds of copies per day. Let’s take into account that the Matriz sends a folder of about 1TB during six days of the week5 to all the Submatrices that are located throughout the country.

In this system, the speed of copying is key. For this purpose, a software called Paquetecopies6 was developed in Cuba.

The Matrices also make a profit by paying for advertising and promotion. Both Estudio Odisea and OMEGA have different focuses in this regard. The former has been involved with the Cuban music industry for years. Through Abdel La Esencia, a well-known figure, they have even produced musical materials, with a special focus on the reggaeton genre. The Paquete phenomenon is so popular that many Cuban musicians prefer to premiere their music videos there first and then in the official media, such as Cuban TV.7 The second parent company, OMEGA, has focused on advertising for private businesses on the island. They have a close relationship with ETRES, the first advertising agency8 in Cuba since 1959. It also created a space for Cuban YouTubers, who have now almost entirely migrated to the Internet. Although we could say that the Paquete was the first national means of distribution for local content producers who became known as PaqueTubers.

[02] SUBMATRIZ

The Submatrices receive the compiled data of the Paquete directly from the Matrices, through a process called “Daily Update.” Through this process, they receive 1TB of updated information from the previous day that includes all the folders of the Paquete. The price is 1000 CUP, about 42 USD, plus shipping costs9 , which are paid by the Submatrices. These payments are made weekly.

A work team receives this information and selects the contents of preference of its target audience. They also usually reorganize10 the content into a new folder structure, which usually does not differ too much from the structure of the Paquete that arrived from the Matriz. For this, they usually use a software called Gestor de Paquete (Package Manager)11 that streamlines this process. These modifications are related to the number of novels or series concerning other high-demand materials. Once the information is sorted, the Submatrices begin the copying process at their point of sale. Powerful computers and filing space are required to receive this amount of information per day.

Submatrices regularly have more than one employee with a computer attending to customers. To organize these copies, in an economic sense, they use a software developed in Cuba called MiRON.12

[03] PAQUETERO

The Paqueteros are, in many cases, young people between 18 and 30 years of age. This is a job that in Cuba is understood as a part-time, second job. They are independent of the Submatrices, through which they make the copies of the Paquete Semanal. The cost for the Paquetero depends on the number of copies he orders from the Submatriz on different hard disks and the speed with which he must receive them. This has a great impact because it depends on how many customers the Paquetero can serve at the same time, as well as the prices he will charge for his service. Paqueteros also often make copies of the Paquete using their computers.

[system]13

The logic of operation of the Paquete Semanal, despite being an informal and decentralized system (both in social hierarchies and in its economic system), is well-organized and efficient. We could say that it is the informal business that generates the most employment, the only one with a national scope and with which people have most interaction, either directly or indirectly.

The prices of the Paquete vary depending on how the information is accessed. There are three main ways in which this occurs.

+Copy Point

In its vast majority, the distribution of the Paquete is established through DVD stores or in specific spaces that mark its sale, the so-called “Copy points.” They have established a pricing system based on the type of file copied and its size. For example, movies up to 2GB cost 5 CUP, 25 cents USD, while HD movies of 10GB or more cost 10 CUP, 25 cents USD. Chapters of series and soap operas are priced at 3 CUP per chapter, 15 cents USD. In these copy points, there are usually some folders that can be copied for free. This is the case of Interesante Variado14 (Interesting Variety) or some special sections focused on art or national topics.

Another criterion that the copy points take into account in their rules for charging for services is the amount of information that is copied. Many spaces usually make offers for filling 8, 16, or 32GB USB memory sticks, which is the most common practice for the sale of the Paquete by selecting materials. Sometimes customers bring their hard drives, hand them to a worker at the space and leave it for a set amount of time to have the Paquete Semanal copied.

Before the new economic readjustments in January 2021, prices were set according to the type of audiovisual file: episodes of television series cost 1 CUP (5 cents USD) and each movie, 5 CUP (25 cents USD). Likewise, filling up 16GB flash drives cost 10 CUP (50 cents USD) and 32GB flash drives cost 15 CUP (75 cents USD). It should be noted that these rates have fluctuated in relation to the business in question and even the municipality or the region in which it was located.

+Paquetero

In cities with a higher population index, users of the Paquete Semanal usually demand the home delivery service offered by the Paqueteros. The Paqueteros brings the Paquete on a 1TB hard disk to the customers’ home and after a few hours comes to pick it up again. It allows time for each customer to copy the materials of their choice, or the Paquete in its entirety. The price is currently around 75 CUP, about 3 USD. Before January of this year, the price for this same service was 50 CUP, about 2 USD.

A peculiarity of this service is that many Paqueteros lower the price if the customer requests the service on the last days of the week. In this way, they serve more customers without the need to invest in a larger number of hard disks.

+Copying Friends

Many Cubans do not buy the Paquete at all but copy it from others, a very common practice within the Cuban context where everyone always carries a USB or hard disk with them to exchange materials offline. Sometimes, a group of friends or families copy just one complete Paquete and during the week they share the information.

[conclusion]

In recent years, the Paquete Semanal has reached a level of influence and diffusion on the island that is incomparable to any other format or distribution channel. It is not only the main national medium for the circulation of entertainment materials; it is also a cultural phenomenon. Its human infrastructure entails a mandatory basic learning process for both network workers and users, who experience a much more active relationship compared to global distribution systems for entertainment materials. Users are just another node in this distribution system, as their equipment is needed to complete the copies of the Paquete. In turn, even though there is no entity who regulates the prices for services, these remain quite similar throughout the national territory, although they may fluctuate according to the type of file, its size, the immediacy with which it can be accessed, the distribution node and the geographical location. Without being entirely responsible on their own, the parent companies and the distribution nodes take action to set certain prices, taking into account the chain of supply and demand.

This decentralized economic system which has worked for more than 50 years is a fascinating case study of digital distribution networks that do not replicate today’s large digital monopolies. However, we cannot romanticize this phenomenon as it is the result of a response to very specific political and economic conditions, which would be very difficult to find in other contexts.

  1. The research for this chapter was conducted in collaboration with Julia Weist for the exhibition project 17.(SEPT) By WeistSiréPC™ at the Queens Museum in New York, USA
  2. We define a “distribution system” as any informal network focused on entertainment materials with interconnection between cities.
  3. All prices were established for 24-hour rental services. Although it used to be a flexible system, if customers were late in returning the media, they sometimes had to pay small fines or the cost of an extra day’s rental.
  4. The equivalences of Cuban pesos (CUP) to U.S. dollars (USD) have been established, taking into account the official exchange rates currently used in Cuba. 24 CUP = 1 USD
  5. Mondays are the only days of the week when this activity is interrupted for a break
  6. Paquetecopies is a Windows application used by Matrices and Sub-matrices for copying and circulating the Paquete Semanal to other distributors. It allows users to make copies from a single source to multiple devices simultaneously, at maximum speed. As digital files are copied, each device can be automatically synchronized, so that the addition or deletion of files and folders is repeated on all media. The software is only 2MB in size, which is ideal for resellers trying to maximize available disk space.
  7. At present, the Internet is becoming more and more of a reality in Cuba. Nevertheless, music distribution continues to have a strong presence in the Paquete.
  8. Currently, this advertising phenomenon is gradually migrating to the Internet, especially to social networks. Many agencies work with private businesses in different cities across the country.
  9. The shipping price is established taking into account the distance between the subgroup’s headquarters and the parent company.
  10. Larger Submatrices even have their own visual identity and often share their media catalogs in PDF format.
  11. Gestor de Paquete is a software created in Cuba to rename, move and transform the format of multiple digital files, among other functions. It contains several modules to perform different actions, such as renaming thousands of files simultaneously in a few minutes and also the introduction of contacts in subtitle files for promotional purposes.
  12. MiRON is a software developed specifically for the copying points of the Paquete Semanal. It records, copies statistics and organizes the entire economy of each business concerning the materials copied and the respective prices of each particular point. It also has a series of applications, such as automatic copies on each device that is connected to the computers that are used for promotional purposes.
  13. From 1994 until January 2021, Cuba officially had a dual currency. Along with the Cuban Peso (CUP), there was a second currency in circulation, called the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC). On January 1, 2021, the Cuban government eliminated the CUC. The exchange rates of both currencies and the USD fluctuated, although the most usual was as follows: 25 CUP = 1 CUC = 1 USD.
    The elimination of the CUC brought with it an increase in state salaries and, in turn, the introduction of a bank currency called the Moneda Libremente Convertible (MLC). These changes, coupled with the great economic crisis, have caused inflation in the prices of all services and inputs within Cuba, three times more than those before January 2021. It also generated a rise in the value of the USD. Although its physical circulation has not been authorized, when deposited on a card in a Cuban bank branch it becomes the so-called MLC. As a result, its price has increased by about 75% more than its previous value on the black market. As of June 2021, Cuban authorities decided to temporarily prohibit the validity of the USD to be exchanged in cash for MLC; it can only be done from a transfer from abroad.
    According to the Central Bank of Cuba: 1 USD = 24.66 CUP.
    Representative rate of the informal market: 1 USD = 61 CUP.
  14. Interesante Variado is a folder focused on sharing a series of materials downloaded from YouTube and humor web shows. These are usually the most popular Spanish-speaking YouTubers. This folder is also the one that carries most of the promotional material for local private businesses. Matrices usually place advertisement clips behind the most famous YouTubers to ensure their consumption.