On a recent afternoon in Marianao, Cuba, Vilma Vazquez plugs in her external hard drive to the television receiver. She turns on a nearby fan and points it towards the monitor, so it doesn’t overheat.
Once she settles into bed, she clicks through dozens of TV shows and movies until she finds her favorite, Master Chef: Spain.
The wannabe chefs on the reality show prepare exotic fish on a yacht sailing across the Mediterranean. Diners sip on champagne, waiting to be served as the sun sets behind them. Vazquez lets out a sigh.
“I didn’t even know that fish existed,” she says. “I don’t just see the food, I see the sights. You get to see things that are beautiful and that I’m not used to seeing.”
The next morning, Vazquez goes to her neighborhood grocery store to see what she can find for dinner. Most shelves are empty, save for a fully stocked liquor section. She’s lucky to find some mayonnaise and chicken.
Like most Cubans, Vazquez cannot travel easily and her infrequent internet access limits her exposure to foreign culture. For her, watching Master Chef is not only entertainment, but a way to learn and experience from afar.
The advent of “el paquete” a few years ago — a weekly package of digital material acquired from foreign satellite dishes — has given Vazquez and many like her a connection to global pop culture no previous Cuban generation has.
“It doesn’t mean that we can see everything that happens around the world,” says Vazquez. “But it’s something.”
Vazquez learned of the service through her son’s friends. Some providers purchased satellite dishes on the black market, while others, in the Cuban tradition of making something out of nothing, would craft their own.
Through the satellite, paquete providers download and copy media. Then the media — TV shows, PDFs of magazines, feature-length movies — are loaded onto computers throughout the island. Customers then head to those spots to go load their hard drives.
The service has spread across the island, spawning dozens of providers. The price has dropped from 5 convertible Cuban pesos (CUC, about $5) for a full terabyte to 1 CUC $about $1) or 25 Cuban Pesos. The material and media on the paquete has also grown.
The paquete is updated every week with favorites like Master Chef, Game of Thrones and Miami-favorite Caso Cerrado, but it also includes music albums and viral videos from all parts of the deep web (suicide videos, twerk competitions, and Tricia Miranda choreography videos included).
But the paquete is not just for entertainment. It also includes Revolico, a Craigslist-style buy and sell website. The site features goods and services for sale and vendor contact information. Vazquez’s son, Pedro Betancourt, clicks through Revolico, searching for a necessary computer part. Half of the links don’t work, but eventually he finds one that does.
“We bought this computer through Revolico two years ago,” he says. “Sometimes you call and they don’t have it anymore. That’s what a revolico is — a big, agitated, mess.”
Despite the chaos, Cubans are able to resolver through the service. Since the paquete is so widespread and does not exist in printed material, there is no way for the Cuban government to control it.
When it first emerged, the government underestimated its strength. But five years later, Cuba’s government-controlled television stations have lost the majority of their viewers. The two channels which are offered to Cubans show news, sports, and novelas.
“Watching TV is still pesado, because on they put a movie and it’s that movie, you can’t change the channel to find another,” says Betancourt. “If it’s good, congratulations and if it’s bad, you have to watch it just the same because there’s nothing else.”
Also included in the paquete is a PDF weekly newsletter from 14ymedio, an independent Cuban news website founded by journalist Yoani Sanchez. The website is blocked in Cuba, but the paquete subverts that power. PDFs of the websites best stories are uploaded into the drive, spreading the news across the island.
“The paquete has changed a lot for the Cuban,” says Vazquez. “The young people are seeing fashion trends, different tendencies, art forms. I didn’t know that these music competition shows existed, but [now] I know it exists, because I see it on the paquete.”