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Cubans Relive Obama Visit With 'Offline Internet'

  • Reuters

A DVD production called Obama in Cuba is displayed for sale alongside pirated CDs in Havana, April 15, 2016.

A DVD production called Obama in Cuba is displayed for sale alongside pirated CDs in Havana, April 15, 2016.

A curated collection of news and features about U.S. President Barack Obama's historic visit to Cuba last month has become a hit on El Paquete, the island's illegal but tolerated digital media magazine better known for music, films, and soap operas.

Often called Cuba's offline Internet and featuring downloaded Internet pages and commercials along with pirated entertainment, El Paquete is a hugely successful dose of content distributed on hard-drives in neighborhoods across the island, where only about a third of people have access to the Web.

Cuban state media transmitted live much of the March 20-22 visit by the first U.S. president to set foot in Cuba in 88 years, including his keynote speech to the country.

But many people missed the broadcasts because the events took place during work hours.

With Internet access expensive and restricted, for many Cubans their best chance of hearing Obama's speech was through El Paquete, or The Package, which passes from hand to hand and has become a source of income for the thousands of people who distribute it.

"For the time being, El Paquete replaces the Internet for those who don't have it," said Elio Hector Lopez, who helped create the system eight years ago to earn a bit of extra money and watched it expand into a national phenomenon.

"It has become a responsibility, if tomorrow El Paquete disappears I don't know what people would do, it's like water, or a pill for the Cuban body."

His invention is perhaps the most striking example of the declining information monopoly that was for decades held by the Communist Party, which holds its first congress in five years this weekend at a time of growing decentralization in Cuba's economy and society.

Cuba's formal media is state controlled and people who watch U.S. television via clandestine satellite dishes face fines and confiscated kit if caught. But authorities have mostly turned a blind eye to El Paquete, which normally steers well clear of politics, and avoids violence and pornography.

U.S. President Barack Obama begins a national address to Cuba from the Gran Teatre de la Habana, in Havana, Cuba, March 22, 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama begins a national address to Cuba from the Gran Teatre de la Habana, in Havana, Cuba, March 22, 2016.

Lopez said he didn't think twice about covering Obama's visit in a special edition that included footage taken from U.S. television, and a short documentary about Obama's life.

"This was such a historic event, it had to be in El Paquete," he said, adding that his work was not in coordination with the authorities, but that he was not anti-government.

FILE - People surf the Internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 25, 2015.

FILE - People surf the Internet at a Wi-Fi hotspot in Havana, Cuba, Nov. 25, 2015.

Although planned reforms to make state media more dynamic and critical have largely failed to materialize, Internet access is finally on the rise as the government opens up outdoor Wi-Fi hot spots and prepares to connect more people from home.

"El Paquete delivers information, it can't replace the Internet which has much more information, but since Cuba is blocked from that, it is a way for us to be in the world," said Marisel, 26, a singer.

Some hole-in-the-wall stores selling pirate movies in Havana have also come up with their own product, a DVD production called Obama in Cuba.

"You can imagine how popular this is. A hit," said one vendor of the disc that includes Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro's awkward press conference along with sketches Obama recorded with Cuban comedian Panfilo.

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