DENNISSE CALLE FOUND THE TOPIC for her senior thesis along a Havana street in the back of a stall that sells pirated movies and music.
Cubans pay the equivalent of a few dollars, insert a flash drive into the computer at the back of the stall, and get access to El Paquete — a weekly, one-terabyte compilation of popular TV shows, movies, music, computer and phone apps, and advertisements that serves as an offline Netflix, YouTube, Craigslist and more in a country where internet access is slow and expensive. Calle, a sociology major at Princeton, spent two weeks in January doing research in Cuba and interviewed 50 users and distributors of El Paquete — which means “The Package” — to learn about the service and the way it fits into the lives of everyday Cubans.
“I focus on how El Paquete is transforming how people view themselves as consumers,” Calle said. “This is one of the first forms of consumer culture that is being normalized in Cuba, in part because it’s cheap and easy to pass around.”
The origins of El Paquete, which began around 2008, are unclear, as is the identity of the people behind it. El Paquete is widely available — either distributed door to door using a portable hard drive or from central locations like the stall where Calle discovered it — despite existing in a sort of legal gray area in Cuba.
It offers an alternative to state-controlled Cuban television, which broadcasts only 10 channels of news and sedate fare to most residents.
Many of the TV shows and movies — generally subtitled in Spanish — come from the United States, along with the United Kingdom and Spain. Competition shows such as “The Voice” and “Cake Wars” are popular, as are South Korean soap operas. Calle, who is originally from Ecuador and moved to Trenton, New Jersey, also looked beyond the content to explore how El Paquete is changing the way people see themselves. “I think it’s reflective of what’s happening in Cuba, moving from a state that is very controlling to one that is allowing capitalism to emerge into the nation and its culture,” she said.
Calle’s research and analysis are impressive, said her adviser, Patricia Fernandez-Kelly, a senior lecturer in sociology. “It’s really a study about identity,” Fernandez-Kelly said. “Not just personal identity but national identity.”
What’s ahead for El Paquete in Cuba, which has been working to ease tensions with the United States? Calle predicts El Paquete will survive even if Cubans gain broader access to the internet — in part because it is so inexpensive and easily shared. –By Michael Hotchkiss