This week I had a chance to contribute once more to one of my favorite newsletters, Why is this Interesting? on one of my favorite topics: El Paquete Semanal, the samizdat culture-net that keeps foreign media coming into Cuba despite government attempts at suppression. Read my previous coverage of the phenomenon here and notable reaction here.
Give WITI a look, it’s a great daily perspective-shifter for me.
Nick Parish is an old friend of ours. He escaped the city for Oregon a few years ago, but we can always rely on him for incredible cultural observation. Nick started as a reporter on the sports desk at the New York Post and went on to run the excellent comms magazine and strategy consultancy Contagious. He currently looks after product strategy at Uncorked Studios. - Colin (CJN) [He’s also the one that introduced me to fly fishing! - Noah (NRB)]
Nick here. Back when our foreign policy was more generally oriented around becoming better neighbors, I had the chance to visit Cuba a few times. I was part of a quasi-diplomatic delegation, kind of a junior ranger State Department, a privatized mix of tech dweebs, investors sniffing after policy changes, and government types in various stages of obfuscation and denial. Between visits with officials and community groups, meeting ordinary humble Cubans and the less-than-ordinary elevated Cubans (the ones trying to swap mansions and art for Bitcoin and boltholes in Miami) I had a chance to take a side quest to track down el paquete semanal. El paquete semanal (the weekly package) is a 1TB folder on a hard drive, curated by enterprising Cubans, passed hand-to-hand in the darker part of the island’s grey economy. In that big, hot hunk of drive you can find pretty much all the pop culture you might need, from Game of Thrones to all three games of the latest Marlins-Reds series.
Why is this interesting?
All on its own, el paquete is astounding as a digital economy created without a digital infrastructure. Massive amounts of data transmission happen just by moving things in the physical world. Behold, the sneakernet’s bandwidth. Given Cuba’s constraints, I can safely say somewhere on the island the paquete is being transported right now on a motorcycle, a burro, or a ZiL-130 (Moscow Mule, anyone?).
As with most things Cuban, there’s a lot just a little deeper. When I finally got my hands on a copy of the paquete, secreted home on a Lacie Rugged, I took a few months and did a deeper analysis than I’d seen before. You can find that, and some homegrown Cuban commercial content if you’re interested, in my massive content audit of El Paquete Semanal. (And there’s still a huge file on a server somewhere if you want to send a drive and a FedEx number to sample for yourself.)
I combed through the lovely folder structure, a kind of Cuban cultural scrimshaw, and one thing immediately stuck out to me: The primordial ooze of a free market around el paquete contained tons of advertising. Just beyond the commercial cost for a copy, a couple bucks, there’s a thriving ecosystem of goods and services offered inside. It’s got offline copies of Cuba’s craigslist, Revolico, and all sorts of flyers and video commercials for local businesses, from hairstylists to concert promoters. It’s even got ad agency creds decks to produce said commercials, and quasi media buys, with ads for local businesses inserted into PDFs of magazines and acting as album art for mp3s.
Additionally, there was zero political content or non-Cuban ideology. No books or serious scholarship. Only the popcorniest, Ancient Aliens-type documentaries. Although el paquete contained the internet—in the form of vlog content ripped from YouTube, and simulacra of websites like Revolico, and apps that could be installed onto jailbroken phones—it’s an entirely controlled environment, devoid of the sort of divergent opinions and open speech and dissent and spice that makes it interesting, a false Pirate Utopia, a Permanent Autonomous Zone, Disneyfied by a floundering regime.
This is precisely where the enigma begins for me. We’re far beyond the cultural imperialism of American ideas, and the notion that the Internet, maybe the last of those shining cities, can be a utopian idea space has been thwarted. Tech megaliths 10x-ing rage and fringe theory cook the worst of us into the attention freebase that advertisers scratch for. They burnt that tired village down, like, well, you know.
So Cuba, a place where competing ideologies pretzel belief, receives this content space as an ideological battleground where the U.S. no longer wins, and nearly doesn’t matter. There’s no need for Cuba to be protected from abstract expressionism. Yankee cultural (or infrastructural) imperialism is over. Spanish heist shows sit with JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure as naturally on el paquete as they do on tu Hulu.
It felt like a bit of symbolic parallelism earlier this summer when the spanking new pride of the Russian navy, the Admiral Gorskov visited Havana with rescue tug in tow, just in case the boat went caca en la cama, another “Oopsie!” in the recent RusMil parade.
So with the cold war sundowning, its Venezuelan benefactor listing (reportedly propped up by Cuban intelligence’s best and brightest) and China unwilling to participate without Cuba paying up, the island finds itself as always at a crossroads, without a Castro at the helm. Con Nuestros Propios Esfuerzos, or With Our Own Efforts, Cuba’s national Stone Soup handbook (PDF) from the “special period” of privation in the ’90s may be up for a new edition. (NP)
Comic of the Day:
After combing through all this it probably won’t surprise you that Mad’s famous Spy vs. Spy cartoon was the product of a Cuban, Antonio Prohías, whose work had fallen out of favor with the government. Above, you can see his original Spy-esque character, El Hombre Siniestro. When Prohías himself was accused of being a spy and run out of town, the duality was born, and, as the story goes, he walked it into the Mad offices and they hired him then and there.
In many ways satire is a second language in Latin America, and among those Cuban satirists are most fluent. One contemporary voice worth listening to is Angel Boligán, second only to Argentina’s Liniers on my All Star team. (NP)
This bonafide academic paper (PDF) focused on el paquete’s distribution network. “El Paquete provides a critical opportunity to understand the human labor that constitutes this sociotechnical system and emerges as a provocative example of an information network that challenges our notions of what the internet “should” look like across disparate geographies and sociopolitical terrains.” (NP)
Cuba got so messed up in the “special period” that punk rock kids were infecting themselves with HIV to get a break. (NP)