Cuban entrepreneurs find ways to get information — with or without the Internet

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Marco Werman: I’m Marco Werman and you’re tuned to The World. Maybe you’re listening to The World on a good internet connection. But you can’t do that in Cuba--not yet, anyway. But now that the US and Cuba are resuming diplomatic relations, there’s hope that Cuba’s internet dirt road will soon become a superhighway. For the past few years though, some technically-minded Cubans have come up with clever ways of navigating their internet dirt road. Jonathan Watts writes about it in The Guardian newspaper, he’s in Havana. So, failing speedy connections in Cuba, tell me about Cuba’s so-called “offline internet.”


Jonathan Watts: Well, this is an ingenious way of making up for having a lack of broadband cables, or WiFi, which, instead of using cable and WiFi, people were pretty much using their feet, hard drives, USB cables and they're literally carrying huge amounts of data from one place to the other and sharing them with each other. So, what you get is little outlets, generally speaking it’s in people’s homes, and their neighbors and others who specialize in just carrying data around, effectively they are data mules, going from place to place and each week unloading what’s called “the weekly package,” which is one terabyte of information that’s being spread all over Cuba by hand, by foot every single week.


Werman: This data mule that you focus on, a woman named Teresita Rodriguez, what’s her day like?


Watts: Yeah, she makes a living basically by being employed to go from place to place, collecting the most updated package of information. It’s a really dull job actually, in that she just has to turn up and then she has to sit and wait for two or three hours while the hard drive she’s carrying is connect to a computer and all this information is downloaded. Now, the source of that information is unclear. I asked several people “Where do you get all of this latest content from?” and they said “We don’t like to ask too many questions. It just comes from someone who has a high speed internet.” High speed internet is very rare in Cuba. It’s estimated that less than five percent of the population have access to any internet, and the majority of that five percent just have dial-up connections. So, it’s only a few very privileged places that have a fast enough speed to be able to download like one terabyte every thursday night so that it can be distributed on.


Werman: Tell me about what’s in the weekly package this week in terms of entertainment.


Watts: This week’s packages advertised every single Bruce Willis film, as well as all the latest additions of the big US shows--”Two and a Half Men,” all the previous editions of “Breaking Bad,” “Downton Abbey,” it’s got 500 magazines, including National Geographic, PC Weekly, The Economist, and then games like Fruit Ninja and Angry Birds. So, pretty much anything you might have as an app on your mobile phone, somewhere else in the world is all crushed into this big terabyte and then people pick and choose. Clearly they have very eclectic tastes because there’s also Japanese manga, and apparently South Korean TV dramas are very popular, which is kind of surprising. Really, a little bit of everything; a terabyte-sized chunk of the worldwide web coming in every thursday. It’s extremely illegal in most parts of the world for various copyright reasons, but there you go.


Werman: I was going to say, we know about movies being released prematurely on pirated copies of DVDs or downloads. How soon might we expect to see “The Interview” popping up on the streets of Havana?


Watts: I asked them about that because they do have pirated copies of the film. People in Cuba are already watching, for example, the latest “Hobbit” movie, and it’s a very basic pirate copy that they’d be watching and sometimes there are people walking across the cinema screen or laughter at a very low level, and I asked them about “The Interview” and I said “Do you have this yet?” and they said “No, we don’t have it yet.” I said “Is that because you’re worried about hacking?” and they laughed and said “No, we’re not online, so we don’t have to worry about hacking at all here. So, when it comes out, we’ll happily include that in the package.”


Werman: Jonathan Watts writes for The Guardian newspaper, speaking with us from Havana. Thank you very much Jonathan.


Watts: Cheers. Happy Christmas to you all.