No Internet in Cuba? For some, offline link to world arrives weekly

The vast majority of Cubans have no access to the Internet or cable television, but that doesn’t mean they’re out of touch with the wider world. Many stay connected through an offline system that operates in the legal shadows.

It’s called the “weekly packet,” and it’s an alternative to broadband Internet that provides tens of thousands of Cubans, and perhaps many more, with foreign movies, TV shows, digital copies of magazines, websites and even local advertising.

Cubans obtain the packet by toting empty portable computer hard drives to clandestine distributors who load them with an array of the latest movies, television episodes and music videos. Then the hard drives are taken home, where they’re viewed on computers over the next week.

Where the material originates remains a mystery, but Cuba’s one-party state, which controls all television and print media and brooks little open dissent, seems to tolerate the system – perhaps because it provides entertainment in a nation where daily life is often drab.

One recent week, the packet included the latest television episodes of Showtime’s “Homeland,” HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and the new Netflix serial “Marco Polo,” all with Spanish-language subtitles and without commercial interruption. Movies in the packet included the recent releases “Gone Girl,” “Cantinflas” and “Outcast.”

The packet also can include news and variety shows from the Spanish-language networks Univision and Telemundo. There are YouTube videos, updates to anti-virus software, Japanese anime, programs from India and the Middle East, mobile phone apps and simple advertisements for businesses in Cuba.

“I watch the news, documentaries, humor shows and sports events,” said Luis Lahera, a 45-year-old former safety and rescue expert for the Interior Ministry

Lahera said he had no qualms about spending the equivalent of $2.30 a week to get the weekly packet, even though some officials had criticized its content.

“I heard them say on the TV news that the packet can cause people to deviate, but I don’t see proof of this. No one speaks of politics. … And there’s no pornography on it,” Lahera said.

‘Way of escape’

“It’s a way of escape,” said Poe Rivera, a painter and poet, who added that the packet distracts and amuses Cubans. “It’s not legal but it is convenient,” he said, referring to why the government might do little to interfere with its distribution. “This way, people don’t think too much.”

In the far western reaches of Havana, a distributor of the weekly packet allowed two foreign reporters to see how he operates. He asked to be called only by an alias, Iyawo, lest he be arrested and imprisoned.

“All the series you see in Miami you can see here,” he said, listing Spanish-language programs such as “Sal y Pimienta” (“Salt and Pepper”), “The Alexis Valdes Show” and “Case Closed,” which deals with domestic disputes.

Predictions that authorities would slam the door on the weekly packet coincide with praise for it from cultural commentators.

“What we call the packet is certainly one of the most important cultural phenomena the country has experienced in the past quarter century,” writer Victor Fowler Calzada said at a forum in Havana in November.

Clients of the weekly packet pay on a sliding scale, depending on the day of the week they receive their loaded hard drives and the amount of material they want. Clients can receive as much as one terabyte of material – hundreds of hours of video – which requires an external hard drive the size of a small book, or as little as can fit on a tiny flash drive, selecting only certain categories of content. As weekdays roll by and the material grows older, the price drops.

Iyawo said he had about 200 clients who paid an average of $1 each. He said he paid $15 a week to receive the material from a distributor above him. At least 1,000 distributors like him are scattered around Cuba, he added.

Iyawo said he didn’t know where the distributor who supplied him got the material. Satellite dishes are outlawed in Cuba and those who use them can face large fines. Some suspect that Cubans who work in official jobs with access to broadband Internet may be downloading and assembling the packets on the sly.