HAVANA — The $2 item that's transforming Cuba can be bought from a 23-year-old named Adrian Cabrera who seems unmoved by the idea that he's selling revolution.
Adrian sits bored inside a corner store in a crumbling four-story apartment building, awaiting customers. The sign out front says, "Agente de telecomunicaciones" and that is true, sort of — this Havana store does offer cellphone minutes and iPhone repairs.
But the $2 item is a thing you have never heard of, a thing that's unavailable and wholly illegal in the United States, a thing so big here that experts call it "the Cuban Internet."
The people call it El Paquete, which translates to The Package. They get it when they bring in a flash drive, hand Adrian the equivalent of $2 in Cuban pesos, and he uploads an almost unfathomable amount of news and entertainment for their personal use.
American movies. Spanish newspapers. Argentine music videos. French fashion magazines. Miami talk radio programs. Even a hit NBC drama created by Kearney, Nebraska, native Jon Bokenkamp. "The Blacklist," Adrian says, nodding.
When a Cuban takes this flash drive home and plugs it into her computer, it's the world at her fingertips — a world filled with thoughts and opinions that Fidel Castro hid from Cuban citizens for decades.
"All ages of people buy it," Adrian says through a translator, looking a little bewildered by an American's interest. "Old people. Young people. Single people. Family people. Everyone buys it."
To understand why El Paquete is big news, you need to understand the death grip that the Castro government put on information soon after coming to power on Jan. 1, 1959.
It banned foreign newspapers, magazines, TV shows. It banned rock 'n' roll after Fidel called it "the music of the enemy." It built a state-run media, which is allowed to print and broadcast only the content deemed "in accordance with the goals of the socialist society." People working outside this state-run media — either by running an independent news organization or distributing banned content — risked their livelihoods and sometimes their lives.
The advent of the Internet brought a sliver more freedom but also frustration, because Internet access is spotty and tightly controlled.
Critical bloggers and independent reporters are "persecuted ... with arbitrary arrests, short-term detentions, beatings, surveillance and smear campaigns," the Committee to Protect Journalists said when it named Cuba the ninth-most-censored country in the world in 2013.
Last year Reporters Without Borders ranked Cuba 169th out of 180 countries on its World Press Freedom Index, sandwiching Cuba between war-torn Yemen and the totalitarian regime in Iran.
Into this darkness poked a tiny beam of light: El Paquete. It first appeared in 2009, produced and distributed by a small group of young Cubans believed to live in both Havana and South Florida. In its infancy, El Paquete functioned largely the way underground content has long functioned in Cuba, the 21st century version of a smuggled Spanish-language magazine or pirated VHS tape of "The Godfather" passed from friend to friend.
But in the past few years El Paquete has come aboveground — sold openly in stores like the one where Adrian works — and exploded in popularity. Today it's a massive digital library of recent movies, TV and magazines, and you can't go eight hours in Havana without hearing someone uttering its name.
Did you see that crazy episode of "Game of Thrones"? Yeah, I saw it on Paquete. How did you get that Candy Crush phone app? Paquete. How did you watch that banned film? Paquete.
"It's a social, cultural phenomenon," says Sisy Gomez Pena, one of several Havana film students who met with me in a Havana hotel.
These film students have seen all manner of classic American movies — films from Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino — on Paquete. They also have watched dozens of documentaries and independent Cuban movies that the Cuban government doesn't allow to be shown in theaters.
Robin Pedraja, the founder of an edgy Cuban culture online magazine called Vistar, says most of his magazine's readers actually come to it through Paquete, not the Internet.
He voluntarily sends a copy of Vistar to an El Paquete email address each month, and within a few days it spreads across the country.
"It's the best way for us to get exposure," he says.
No one really knows why the Cuban government allows El Paquete's continued existence, though that does seem to fit with President Raul Castro's gradual relaxation of many of his brother Fidel's most hated policies.
And everyone acknowledges that El Paquete is of course illegal. A decade after the movie and music industries cracked down on sharing services like Napster, most of Paquete's content is stolen from TV networks, movie studios and record labels. It seems likely that the government will eventually end this digital piracy, especially as more foreign entertainment companies do business in Cuba.
But so long as El Paquete does last, it will connect Cubans to the world in a way simply impossible for a half-century. So long as it lasts, it's promoting a globalization that may lead many younger Cubans to reject their grandparents' and parents' allegiance to the Cuban Revolution.
"They have been raised with the major influences of foreign life," says Miguel Paneque, a Cuban doctor and tour guide. "And now they are seeing (foreign) things, and they are saying, 'We need that, we want it, why can't we have it, too?' "
Back in the corner store, Adrian pulls up El Paquete on a computer and points out the content most likely to make Fidel mad: old episodes of "Show de Cristina," a now-ended Univision hit whose Cuban-American host Cristina Saralegui — known as the Latina Oprah — criticized the Castro government; other Miami-area TV and radio talk shows that are strongly anti-Castro; other American programs that the Bearded One surely thinks glorify capitalism.
But most people, Adrian says, skip this sort of stuff and go straight to the entertainment: soap operas, Spanish language movies and "The Blacklist." Has he mentioned "The Blacklist"?
"It's one of the most popular shows on Paquete," he says, as he awaits the next customer who shows up with $2.
AN EIGHT-DAY SERIES
Sunday: The new Cuba
Monday: Emerging entrepreneurs
Today: Connecting to outside world
Tomorrow: Twisting, turning paths brought two young Cubans to Omaha
Thursday: Fighting for compensation
Friday: Rocking to "decadent" music
Saturday: Selling Husker agriculture
Sunday: Parting thoughts and images
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