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Reconnecting Cuba

cubaI found out how much opportunity there might be for large companies in Cuba on a sweltering August afternoon on one of Havana’s busiest thoroughfares. I ducked into a minuscule shop that seemed to specialize in passport photos and photocopy services. But all the customers I met were purchasing an item that wasn’t advertised at all: a tiny USB stick filled with a terabyte of information and called el paquete semanal, or “the weekly packet.”

Yoan, the 26-year-old clerk, would give me only his first name. He said that every week, an unnamed distributor delivers a fresh packet filled with an eclectic assortment of content: pirated Hollywood films, telenovelas produced in Miami, stand-up comedy, the Spanish-language Wikipedia, and Revolico, Cuba’s semi-legal answer to Craigslist. The material found on the packets is hardly revolutionary; in fact, according to Yoan, episodes of America’s Funniest Home Videos were more frequently found than anything political. But el paquete functions as a mass-distributed, curated version of a world that most Cubans lack the means or opportunity to access. “Everyone I know buys el paquete,” Yoan said. (See “India’s Triple Play” for a similar story halfway around the world.)

The Cuban customers in that shop, hungry for information from the world outside, have had little access to the Internet, which is slow or nonexistent in their country. That fact alone is an invitation to foreign companies — and not the only one. Since U.S. president Barack Obama announced the easing of U.S. sanctions against Cuba in December 2014, nearly every day has brought news of U.S. cruise ships, entrepreneurs, baseball teams, agriculture producers, fashionistas, or Kardashians landing in Havana.

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