Havana - Black market sales of USB sticks loaded with Hollywood blockbusters, pop music or football are booming in communist Cuba, where content-starved consumers are snapping them up to escape the dreary offerings of state-run media.
Hungry for the Internet and barred from access to satellite television, Cubans have regularly swapped entertainment stored on USB sticks or computer hard drives.
The practice has now evolved to a sophisticated new level, however, with the rise of what is known locally as the “paquete.”
Each week, a new such paquete arrives, and Cubans guided by word of mouth hurry to fill USB keys with hours of high-end entertainment at prices ranging from less than a dollar to five dollars, depending on the content, which is available a la carte.
It might be a pirated Hollywood movie or a chance to watch Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi in the latest action from Spain's La Liga football championship.
Others favour the latest episodes of racy Brazilian or South Korean soap operas, hugely popular in Cuba.
For the underground distributors of paquetes, these bundles of digital escapism are nothing more than harmless fun.
“There's no politics, no pornography, nothing for the police to get worried about,” says one distributor, Jose.
Authorities in Cuba have so far largely turned a blind eye to the phenomenon.
A notable exception, however, is former culture minister Abel Prieto, a special adviser to President Raul Castro, who recently decried the “trash can of the paquete,” which he said was a symptom of “Yankee culture invading us shamelessly.”
Addressing a meeting of intellectuals in mid-April, Prieto said it was time to “oppose, tear down and depreciate the paquete ... so that people understand they are being fooled.” But he pointedly failed to recommend an outright ban on the paquete.
At the same meeting, meanwhile, an official commission acknowledged that Cuba's five state broadcast channels were “very distant from the cultural, informational and entertainment needs of our people.”
Until that situation changes, the paquete's popularity seems assured.
Maria Teresa, a 48-year-old from Holguin, 750 kilometers south of Havana, buys four gigabytes worth of entertainment - television series in her case - for around 20 cents.
“It's enough for the whole week,” she said.
Daniel, a 22-year-old law student, told a similar story.
“In addition to films and TV series, I look for antivirus updates,” he said.
Graciela, a nurse from Las Tunas, 700 kilometers from Havana, said she turned to the paquete after getting fed up with domestic entertainment.
“I watch some TV, but Cuban telenovelas are bad and the Brazilian ones take too long, it's painful. So I buy my little paquete for five pesos and I'm happy,” she said.
An Easter week paquete seen by AFP bore the hallmarks of increasingly sophisticated production techniques, including advertisements for professional photography studios and small restaurants.
“I hope they don't try and ban or change them,” said Marcos, a 50-year-old carpenter from Havana. “At the end of the day, all we are doing is watching peacefully at home. It's not hurting anyone.”
Yet change may be inevitable.
The famous dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez plans to launch an online opposition newspaper this year.
She has said that the paper will be distributed by mobile phone and email, as well as the preferred methods of file-sharing used by Cubans - USB sticks, hard drives, DVDs and CDs.
“I hope it will appear in the paquete menus,” Sanchez said.
But Pro-Castro regime blogger Yohandry predicted Sanchez's paper may prove the death knell of the paquete.
“I told my neighbors and friends to buy the paquete this week because it could be the last,” Yohandry said.
“Because everything Yoani touches rots.” - Sapa-AFP