Dr. Paloma Duong on El Paquete and digital access in Cuba

 

Paloma Duong (MIT Global Studies and Languages):

   “Digital Media, Youth Culture, and the Public Sphere in Contemporary Havana”

 

Paloma began outlining the three core projects within her presentation:

1) Concepts in Comparative Media in Latin America;

2) Information and Communication Technologies in Cuba;

3) An Approach to the Digital Public Sphere in Post-Socialist Cuba

 

She highlighted Chaparro’s idea of “digital segregation” which looks at technological dependency and investments in infrastructure as tied to transnational business. It allows us to posit the specifics of social and cultural histories as well as material conditions play an important role in digital access and usage. In the case of Latin America especially, the idea of an alternative modernity leading to alternative solutions is central. Latin America doesn’t fit into the Western/Non-Western divide. Instead, Latin America is seen by some theorists as an ‘extreme West’. Duong explains that the equilibrium of informal grey and black markets, including work markets, plays an important role in the consitution of Latin America, which often goes overlooked by international surveys. This includes state-sponsored or state-sanctioned piracy. Latin America also shows communal ingenuity in securing public utilities, navigating demands when the market and state fail to provide. Looking at two maps showing the telephone and internet underwater cables, we can see that where Cuba was central to the laying of the underwater telephone cables, when the internet cables were laid in the 21st century, Cuba was deliberately avoided. Today there is only one connection via Venezuala which remains a highly secretive state connection.

 

Duong explained how Cuba’s digital segregation has both internal and external factors. These include the degrees of censorship, where by some illegal access of the internet is overlooked by state enforcement, whilst other forms are heavily policed. Internet usage can also be ‘sublet’ from one user with access to another. In fact, there are networks of gamers who use wifi to connect locally, offline. However if these networks are connected to the internet it can mean these groups are subjected to police raids. The neighbourhoods will have a few satellites which support these gaming, social and sharing networks. They are internally policed by the community and are not connected to the internet – no porn, no politics! These networks are free, but are password protected, and you can only enter if you have broadband to contribute and know someone who can give you the password. As such you ultimately have to ‘buy into’ the network. This ensures the connectivity of the network stays strong. There are methods of monetising the connectivity of the networks, where houses that block signals between antenna will try and cash in on the demand for them to be a node. Interestingly, World of Warcraft is really popular, but the networks had to rewrite the server code in order to access it from Cuba.

 

Paloma is interested in the ways these gaming networks and small entrepreneurs and cultural producers challenge, resist and complicate the post-socialist narrative. She argues that it is not as simple as ‘the market is coming to overthrow the authoritarian regime’. The state and the market are complicit with each other in encroaching on notions of public space, property, invention and small business, and everyday survival strategies in communities. In her conversations with some of the gamer networks, Paloma found a sense of heterogeneity among the groups. They are mostly male gamers from similar social backgrounds. Paloma raises that culturally and statistically in Cuba the gender barrier to gaming is still apparent, with men dominating the gaming networks.

 

El paquete semanal or ‘the weekly package’ is a weekly 1TB hard-drive that is distributed around Cuba containing dubbed pop-culture TV series, including US and Japanese broadcasts, music and local advertisements. There is a theory that the government is in fact putting up the package, which is not confirmed. However, they allow it to happen because there is no politics or porn on the drive. Students of technology university’s are privileged in their access to fast connections. Whilst they may spend their professional days promoting Cubist state propaganda online as part of their national service, in the evening they may pirate the technology in order to download and distribute this material.

There is a system in place where there are a group who are responsible for downloading the material, which in turn gets passed on to the compilers. The market-value of the paquete decreases throughout the week, so it becomes its own economy between the deliverers, friends and commnunity networks. The lucrative part of the paquete comes from the selling of advertising space rather than the selling of the paquete itself for 2$ a go, as it is a piracy network primarily. Promoters will economise the competitiveness of different artists in this alternative cultural market, as artists have to be recognised by the Cuban state. The Cuban state sponsors artists and material that they feel promote social values, where as the paquete market allows more subversive forms to circulate.

 

Here Paloma stated that this asks interesting questions of the public sphere; in terms of who gets to speak and when. Claims of copyright and digital property become contested in the socialist and post-socialist context. For example, one company copied the StarBucks wifi logo. The national artist of Cuba has a project where Internet access is available from the kcho estudio romerillo, however, the password is a slogan from the Revolution: Paloma is interested in the way this interpellates the individual by forcing them to perform this act whilst simultaneously connecting, perhaps subversively, to the internet. The question is raised between the local and underground economies of Cuba, in tension with transnational market encroachment and the post-socialist state.

 

Paloma asked whether it is better to have equal access as a public good, over uneven expansion? In other words, is all having less better than gaps in access levels? Paloma closed with the argument that this might be a false premise.