[Harper's] Letter from Havana: The Weekly Package
Letter from Havana: The Weekly Package
Harper's Magazine, July 2017
In Havana’s late afternoon, when the heat had risen to more than ninety degrees, Maykel Molina Gutiérrez got off the bus in the posh neighborhood of Vedado, walked to an apartment building, and climbed six flights of stairs. Thirty-four with a hint of a beard, he kept a black backpack slung over his shoulder. By the time he reached the top, his T-shirt was drenched in sweat, and he used a corner to dab his forehead. He rang the doorbell—once, then twice.
No one answered. He pulled a beaten-up notepad out of his pocket and sighed. It would be a long night. The evening’s delivery list had sixteen names, scribbled in capital letters with black marker, and this was only his first stop on an eight-mile route.
Maykel Molina Gutiérrez delivers El Paquete to a customer during his weekly round. All photographs by Alexa Hoyer, whose work is on view this month at the Marjorie Barrick Museum of Art, in Las Vegas
Soon a man appeared on the landing, dressed in a white tank top and aviators. Using an iPhone (an illegal possession), he was texting his friend, Gutiérrez’s client, via Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba (ETECSA), the national telecommunications provider. This was expensive, so the man paid for it by “living the life” (selling sex to tourists), he said, without looking up from his screen. After a few minutes, he got a ping. “She’s on her way.”
As if on cue, a woman ascended the stairs: a twenty-five-year-old model named Gladys Yenei Cisneros wearing a skintight polka-dot minidress. She had a gold nose ring and long black curls. Her girlfriend, a blonde in a pink jumpsuit, was in tow. Cisneros greeted Gutiérrez the Cuban way, with a kiss on the cheek. Everyone in the neighborhood knew him as the Package Guy, but regulars, as Cisneros was, called him Miguelito (“Little Maykel”).
She invited him into her living room, which was full of mahogany furniture. The others followed and lit cigarettes. Gutiérrez sank into a rocking chair, unzipped his backpack, and took out a crimson velvet pouch, which he had sewn himself to protect his product from Havana’s street dust. Cisneros traded for it with three singles—Cuban convertible pesos, a secondary legal currency pegged to the U.S. dollar and exchanged for all things desirable. She opened the parcel ceremoniously, tugging a string to reveal a hard drive. It weighed exactly 4.8 ounces, fit in the palm of her hand, and was the source of almost everything she knew about foreign culture.
Cisneros’s building had no internet connection—in Cuba, only apparatchiks and hackers could get online at home. But when she plugged the drive into her laptop, another world revealed itself, in folders within folders—containing MP3, AVI, JPEG, and PDF files—arranged in alphabetical order from “Antivirus” to “Trailers.” El Paquete Semanal (“The Weekly Package”), as the compilation is called, is part newsstand, part mixtape, part offline streaming service—a drive curated with magazine articles, Hollywood films, YouTube videos, phone apps, classified ads, and more. It has become the country’s largest private industry, reaching about half the population and generating at least $1.5 million a week. Underground hustlers keep the operation running with some 45,000 foot soldiers. Almost any media can be downloaded, though not quite everything; El Paquete producers scrub out politics, religion, and pornography, knowing what is likely to upset government censors—who, of course, receive drives of their own.
For years, the Castro regime held the nation at a technological standstill: The internet was banned, satellite television was illegal, and, largely because of the U.S. embargo, most computer software and hardware was prohibited. In 2009, the Obama Administration began allowing American telecommunications companies to conduct business in Cuba, and in 2013, Venezuela activated a fiber-optic cable between the countries. The government started to introduce Wi-Fi in public hot spots, but it has been a slow process. According to Freedom House, an internet-watchdog group, just 2 percent of Cuba’s 11 million people get online on a daily basis. Last December, ETECSA announced a pilot program to connect Cubans at home, though it has reached only a few hundred. The arrival of Netflix on the island, announced in 2015, has seemed as much a cruel joke as a P.R. stunt—in a place where the average monthly salary is $25 and online banking and international money transfers are blocked, who could supply the $7.99 monthly fee? People still depend on El Paquete. Gutiérrez believes that as the final step in its elaborate distribution chain, he brings enlightenment to Havana. “I am like Robin Hood,” he told me. “I take from the rich and give to the poor information.”
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