At the end of a corridor off a main street in Santa Clara, 300 kilometers from Havana, a fluorescent lamp illuminates a dark green room. Alejandro stands proudly over the glass counter that displays his catalogue of video games.
His budding business solves a glaring need in Cuba’s gaming community. Although the Cuban government has started slowly easing internet restrictions, limited access to the web and slow download speeds make it nearly impossible to play video games online. And while authorities lifted a ban on selling video games last year, the discs and cartridges are hard to get a hold of due to import restrictions. The U.S. embargo that isolated the country for over 50 years has made many consumer goods scarce.
Cubans have found inventive ways to navigate around these towering trade limits and to bend restrictive government rules. As the island opens up and U.S. policy softens, young Cubans say they want more than ever to buy and do the same things as their global peers.
Alejandro’s workaround to the video game scarcity is an informal peer-to-peer distribution network. (His name, and others in this article, have been changed to protect identities.) Entrepreneurs use the faster internet speeds in Havana to download games and distribute them on discs and external hard drives, called el paquete (‘the packet’). The network is also called a ‘sneakernet’ for the shoes that carry the drives.
Alejandro stockpiles these downloaded games, including “Grand Theft Auto”, “Assassin’s Creed”, and his favorite, “Mortal Kombat”. He keeps a catalogue of his disc collection at his Santa Clara storefront. “I’ve played all of the games I sell,” he says.
His customers bring in their older PlayStations, most of which were bought on the black market or brought from the U.S. by family. Alejandro modifies the consoles so they play the games, a complicated trick he learned from YouTube tutorials. Downloading and re-selling games itself is illegal piracy, but Alejandro seems unaware.
The Cuban government is increasingly concerned about young people’s rising interest in social media, computer games, music, and any form of media deemed violent or materialistic. To counteract these outside influences, Cuba recently launched its own video game with a positive spin: “Aventuras en la Manigua” (“Adventures in the Jungle”) allows children to interact with wild animals.
As online access expands in Cuba, however, it’s getting harder to restrict content. It’s a dilemma for the government, which recognizes the importance of the web in developing the economy. Roughly 5 to 30 percent of Cuba’s population uses the internet, one of the world’s lowest rates. Official internet cafés and state-sanctioned Wi-Fi zones are boosting use, but much of the content is censored. Costs are also prohibitive: logging on at an internet café costs USD 2.25 an hour, about 10 percent of the average monthly state salary.
Cubans also can’t legally access the internet in their homes. Some savvy users, like Maria, have pushed past this obstacle.
In Holguin, on the east of the island, Maria runs a guesthouse from her home. The dark wooden furniture, stone floors, new bathroom, and kitchen fixtures give a sense of wealth not typically seen in average houses.
The internet is essential to her business. She managed to get access in her residence with the help of a Bolivian friend who, in Maria’s words, “facilitated” the connection, since internet restrictions don’t apply to foreigners in Cuba.
The hookup allowed Maria to hire a designer in the Netherlands to create a website for her guesthouse. “I can now advertise my rooms on the internet,” she explains, and customers can pay for their rooms in advance online—something that, until recently, was unheard of. U.S. restrictions on banking in Cuba have complicated online transactions for years. With readily available internet, Maria can quickly respond to customers and keep her rooms booked.Farther east in Santiago de Cuba, young people are finding creative uses for the official internet cafés.
The main hub typically has a two-hour wait in the scorching heat to enter. Inside, new computers, air conditioning, and, of course, web access reward the patient. Most people just want to send emails or get on Facebook, but others are using online dating sites to connect with people in other countries. Finding a spouse abroad is one way to leave Cuba.
In a country where easy internet access remains a distant dream, Cubans will patiently wait for hours and pay a fee, they’ll buy paquetes, or find creative loopholes like Maria—not for nefarious reasons, but to connect with the world, grow their businesses, find a partner, or play a game. Sometimes this requires bending the rules.