14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 12 July 2018 — The ‘Weekly Packet’ is not what it used to be, that space of semi-freedom where you could see audio-visual entertainment materials not offered on Cuban national television. The Government is intervening more and more in the content, imposing documentaries produced in Spanish by an Iranian channel and prohibiting productions that don’t suit it.
This week’s honor belongs to The Lord of the Skies, a thriller with drug trafficking as a backdrop whose producer, Epigmenio Ibarra, is a friend of the Cuban regime. Omega and Odyssey, the two most important parent companies on the island that assemble weekly packets, have decided to “filter” the episodes of the series, which in this new release have several allusions to the involvement of the Cuban Government in drug trafficking in the Caribbean.
A brief note, placed next to this week’s video folders, entitled “Let’s avoid misunderstandings and disrespect,” explains to customers the reason for the censorship. “Our main objective is audiovisual entertainment, which is far from transmitting something subversive or pornographic.”
The packets’ managers go on to say that The Lord of the Skies presents material that is “defamatory and goes against the principles of our Cuban Revolution” and announce that they will transmit each episode with a day’s delay to allow it to be “edited” to remove the most controversial parts.
Among the most rigid rules that have been established in alternative content distribution networks, the strictest rule is to exclude criticism of the Cuban system, its leaders and government policies. On the independent Wi-Fi networks that link thousands of users throughout the island, those who transgress this norm are punished by having their service cut off.
In this case, the series alludes to connections between former President Raúl Castro and Commander Ramiro Valdés related to drug trafficking, a taboo subject on the island since the scandal of the Ochoa case broke out in 1989, which resulted in several people implicated in that crime being shot, among them General Ochoa himself, by whose name the case is popularly known.
Those who prepare versions of the weekly packet have preferred to cut to the bone and take out all the scenes that implicate the Plaza of the Revolution in the movement of cocaine in the area of the island. Customers have complained to high heaven and some distributors consulted by 14ymedio point to what happened as a bad precedent that can make them lose their market.
“The deterioration of the weekly packet has accelerated in recent months,”14ymedio hears from Roberto, a 26-year-old graduate in economics who earns a living as a messenger delivering hard disks to customers who subscribe to the audiovisual collection. “The inspectors are sticking their noses in everywhere and to survive we had to apply the scissors,” he says.
The two major production houses that copy, organize and distribute about one terabyte of materials each week for 2 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly $2 US) began offering foreign films, series and magazines, but have been expanding the business towards advertising. The reporting focuses on private businesses operated by the self-employed which has been one of the highlights, in a country where ideological propaganda is allowed only on national channels, promoted and disseminated by the Government.
Among the most affected content, as the young man explains to 14ymedio, are the promotional videos of private businesses, which used to be common but have been retired. As have “the folder of Android applications that people have developed on their own and many national reggaeton videos that are broadcast on television,” he describes.
The list of excluded content is long. “They have warned us that we can not transmit anything that shows the reality of Venezuela right now, nor any Miami television programs, particularly if they include interviews with Cuban opponents.” But the strategy of “officializing the weekly packet” does not end with the prohibition of including certain materials.
“Where I work, a man comes every week now, calling himself Mandy and riding one of those Suzuki motorcycles that all the segurosos (State Security agents) have,” says Roberto. The man “brings a hard drive and we have put our selection on it.”
Thius, the weekly packet has been filled with documentaries produced by HispanTV, an Iranian channel founded in 2011 that distributes information in Spanish. During the last weeks the content from that channel has increased, especially material critical of the United States Government and the supreme leader of that country.
“Customers don’t like it, I don’t like it, but what am I going to do? My family is able to eat because of this business and I can’t go against the apparatus,” confirms José Carlos, better known as Nico among his customers in Havana’s La Timba neighborhood, where he claims to fill between 250 and 350 hard drives a week with audiovisuals.
“Anyone who wants to engage in opposition or dissent will look for another way, because this business wasn’t born to make a revolution or anything like that, but to amuse people,” says Nico. “Now everyone is screaming to high heaven because we have to cut some scenes from a series, but the weekly packet is still much freer and better stock than what’s on national television.”
Some clients consulted by this newspaper haven’t taken well to the coup and are looking for new options, such as the one of the paketico (little packet), a compendium without censorship that was born in hiding.
“I do not buy it anymore, because every day it looks more like Cubavision,” complains Brandon, 18, a frequent consumer of the paketico as an alternative. “Now what is gaining many followers among the youngest is to copy only what matters and create our own packets, but of course, they have neither the reach nor the popularity of the other.”
“The weekly packet is not what it used to be and the people are not the same as they were a few years ago,” Brandon reflects. “Before, you were content with whatever you got, but now people want to personalize it and let everyone’s tastes define what they see, this is the death of the weekly packet, or at least as we knew it,” he says.
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