Copying and COVID-19 in Havana, Cuba

A woman exits a copy place in Centro Habana as an almendron (a common slang term used in Havana for the 1950s vehicles that still circulate) goes by, announcing upcoming events over loudspeakers. The family that owns the shop resides in the rear portion of the home while the front area has been renovated to receive clients. Photograph taken by author, March 2020.
In the first of our global reports on COVID-19, Laura-Zoë Humphreys shows how the disruption of person-to-person media distribution networks has affected urban sociality in Havana, Cuba.
[Ed. note: This is the first of a series of reports from global cities on the COVID-19 pandemic.]

The day before the World Health Organization officially declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, I walked ten kilometers of Centro Habana in the company of a young nail technician, searching for what some Habaneros refer to as “puntos de copia” or “copy places”—physical locations where vendors licensed by the state sell pirated copies of global media. My companion and I laughed and chatted as we wove our way past pedestrians and collective taxis down the narrow, pothole-ridden streets, scanning the facades of crowded and often-crumbling historic architecture for signs of copy places. As international reactions to the pandemic unfolded, however, this promising turn in my fieldwork came to a sudden halt. Prompted partly by fear of being blocked from returning to the United States where, at that time, I held only a work visa (H1B), a week later I walked the city again, this time to say tearful goodbyes to friends and interlocutors and distribute the food, soap, toothpaste, and medications I had imported to ward against Cuba’s chronic shortages, which make finding such basic necessities an everyday ordeal.1Research for this article is based on in-person ethnography from mid-January to mid-March 2020, interviews and informal conversations over WhatsApp from March through June 2020, and fieldwork trips to Havana, Cuba, in 2014, 2015, and 2018. This work was enabled by generous funding from the Wenner-Gren Foundation, the Carol Lavin Bernick Faculty Grant, Tulane’s Committee on Research Fellowship, Newcomb College Institute, and the Stone Center for Latin American Studies. Thanks to Daymar Valdés and Ivania Torres Martín for research assistance, to María Paula Valdés Torres for transcription work, to Elizabeth Patton for editing, to Hongwei Thorn Chen for his astute reading of this piece, and to the copy vendors and consumers who generously gave me their time. 

I open with this anecdote to draw attention to themes essential to media and urban space in Havana, Cuba, both before and during COVID-19—including piracy, space and place, shortages and gifts. In focusing on these themes, I join in efforts to deprovincialize media studies. Work on digital technologies all too often treats Global North experiences as universal. This trend looks set to continue in the pandemic, as opinion pieces worry about Zoom fatigue or argue that the screens that once isolated us now defend against loneliness. Such writing ignores how experiences of the pandemic differ in places like Cuba and other locations where internet access remains limited and face-to-face forms of piracy are essential for obtaining global media. Scholarship on piracy in the Global South, meanwhile, has challenged the Euro-American premises behind global intellectual property law, demonstrating, for instance, how concepts of what constitutes a legitimate copy can differ between socio-cultural contexts.2For this point and work on the socio-cultural relativity of the copy, see, for instance, Víctor Goldgel-Carballo and Juan Poblete, “Introduction,” in Piracy and Intellectual Property in Latin America: Rethinking Creativity and the Common Good (New York: Routledge, 2020), 4; Kedron Thomas, Regulating Style: Intellectual Property Law and the Business of Fashion in Guatemala (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011); Winnie Wong, Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013). Yet in places where technologies, like so many other basic goods, are in scant supply, the material conditions involved in making and consuming copies are equally consequential. Here, I instead call for close ethnographic attention to how the material, spatial, and temporal practices of copying transform urban experience, and show how these practices came under new pressure in Havana during the pandemic. 

A materialist rather than a legal or economic approach to the copy must begin by asking about infrastructure. As Brian Larkin writes, “infrastructures are built networks that facilitate the flow of goods, people, or ideas and allow for their exchange over space.”3Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” Annual Review of Anthropology no. 42 (2013): 328. Key to the study of infrastructure is an emphasis on systems and the built things responsible for moving matter. Yet while infrastructural studies of media often prioritize the technologies that enable online experiences—such as cell phone towers and data centers—in many locations of the Global South, human activity and objects such as flash drives and hard drives are the indispensable elements of media ecologies that depend on in-person interaction.4For infrastructural studies of media, see, for instance, Lisa Parks and Nicole Starosielki, Signal Traffic: Critical Studies of Media Infrastructures (Urbana, University of Illinois Press, 2015). AbdouMaliq Simone, “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg,” Public Culture vol. 16, no. 3 (2004): 407-429, provides a seminal argument on human activities and improvisation as infrastructure in Global South cities.

This is the case for Cuba, where human labor and relationships, flash drives, hard drives, and computers form the backbone of media distribution. While significant improvements were made in internet services on the island from 2010 on, as of 2020, going online remains prohibitively expensive. A new 3G data service for cell phones rolled out in December 2018 facilitated Cubans’ use of applications such as WhatsApp that consume minimal data. Yet the expense of 3G service—10 CUC (roughly 10 USD) for 1 GB of data in a country where the average state salary is approximately 30 CUC per month—means that most Cubans access larger data files such as movies and telenovelas through what is referred to as “el paquete” or “the package:” approximately two terabytes a week of pirated digital media that is organized by two informal collectives then distributed throughout Havana and beyond by messengers who transport the information on hard drive to resellers.5For my previous writing about the paquete, see Laura-Zoë Humphreys, “Utopia in a Package? Digital Media Piracy and the Politics of Entertainment in Cuba,” Hot Spots, Fieldsights, March 27, 2017. When the paquete was first formalized around 2010, its primary resellers were DVD vendors licensed by the Cuban state as part of efforts to decentralize the state economy by expanding the small business sector. By 2020, however, DVDs had been displaced by direct copying onto flash drives or hard drives. This transition further reduced the cost of data files. Whereas DVDs were normally sold for 1 CUC or 25 CUP each, as of 2020, consumers generally paid 1 or 2 CUP (between .03 and .07 USD) for an episode of a telenovela depending on whether it was currently airing or completed and anywhere between 3 CUP and 25 CUP (.10 to 1 USD) for a film depending on its resolution.6As of 2020, Cuba operates with two currencies. In 2004, the American dollar, the use of which was legalized on the island in 1993, was replaced by CUC or Cuban convertible peso, which is treated as its equivalent in value. What is known as moneda nacional (national money) or CUP (Cuban peso) is generally converted at 25 CUP for 1 CUC. 

Obtaining the flash drives, hard drives, computers, and USB-equipped TVs necessary to make or consume copies, however, is a challenge in the resource-poor context of Cuba. Here, social ties between Cubans on the island and those abroad play an essential role. Many island households depend heavily on remittances sent by family members who have emigrated. Some islanders draw on these remittances to purchase technologies offered by “mules”—individuals who import goods from nearby Mexico or Panama to sell them in Cuba, usually at much higher prices. In other cases, family members bring technologies with them on return visits to the island. Copy places also fuel dense local networks. One of the largest vendors with whom I spoke estimated that he had a total collection of 400 to 500 terabytes. In the absence of such storage capacity, however, most vendors must instead make daily decisions about which data to save and which to erase. To keep clients satisfied, smaller-scale vendors will often travel to a larger-scale shop to copy media requested by clients that they no longer have in their own archives. Vendors also turn to these local networks to recover lost content in the more-dire instance of hard drive failure. 

The everyday operation of copy businesses thus relies on and motivates a series of movements throughout Havana and beyond. Perhaps the most notable spatial impact of this new media ecology, however, can be seen in the location and organization of the copy places. As with many of Cuba’s new private businesses, copy places are often located in the front areas of residential homes. Their signage, equipment, and steady flow of clientele thus transform some portion of domestic space into the public space of private businesses, reflecting the changes wrought by Cuba’s economic reforms on urban experience. Vendors’ work tactics and the interior design of copy places further emphasize a capitalist speed and efficiency that contrasts with state businesses’ notoriously slow service. To speed up copying, the owners of one larger-scale copy place employed two employees at two computers with thirteen 3.1 USB ports each and regularly replaced computer parts as these wore out from use. They also made the wait itself work in their favor. A long narrow wooden bench along one wall provided seating while, on the wall opposite the bench, a flat-screen television served at once as entertainment and marketing for the shop’s wares, playing movies or TV shows that clients would sometimes purchase.  

An up-scale copy place in Vedado advertises “films, [television] series, reality [T.V. shows],
documentaries, telenovelas, videogames” with “daily updates” on a sign decorated with popular
American animation to the left. The sign in the middle announces the second business in the
same establishment—a cell phone repair shop. Photograph taken by author; March 2020.

Yet waiting can also become an end in itself. As part of my fieldwork, I took to hanging out at one copy place in particular—a modest business located on the front patio of a private home in Havana’s middle-class neighborhood of Vedado. On a Monday in March, I dropped by this business to copy something to keep me entertained for the evening and to see what was happening. As I waited in the chair beside the vendor, a little boy offered me his toy truck. Just then, Lucia, an eighty-something year old woman who is also a regular client, arrived. We moved together to a nearby bench and were soon chatting amicably with one another, with the boy, who followed us to point out the chickens that the owners of the home keep beside the patio, and with his young mother, who spoke of the discrimination she faced in the hospital when she gave birth because of her perceived age. When I asked Lucia why she was there she pointed to the thirty-year-old vendor, telling me that she had come to see “ese chiquito” (this little one) and also to visit with the owners of the home, with whom she has become friends over the years. “If I weren’t here, then I would be at home solita (alone),” she explained. Indeed, for Lucia the copy place has opened up a rich world of sociability. She is part of a group of women in their fifties through eighties who, in pre-pandemic times, would meet at the copy place every Saturday to copy the latest K-dramas, then relocate to Lucia’s nearby home to copy, talk about K-dramas and K-Pop, hear about one another’s latest adventures or travails, and laugh together.

With COVID-19, such in-person socializing was shockingly disrupted. A little over a week after the declaration of the pandemic, the Cuban state closed the border to tourists; mandated strict quarantine orders, including enabling senior citizens to stay at home and making it illegal to be outside without a mask; organized medical students to perform house-to-house searches for those suffering from respiratory illnesses; and set up extensive contact tracing and quarantine facilities. Arguably, Cubans have much more severe problems than the disruption to media circulation and urban sociability caused by the pandemic. While foreigners applauded the Cuban state for its health measures or for sending doctors to Italy and other hot spots, citizens queued in the lines to stores that have long been an everyday part of life on the island and which now could prove deadly. Others worried about how they would make money stretch as the state cut the salaries of its workers, while artists and those dependent on tourist dollars faced months without income.

As elsewhere, however, Habaneros stuck in their homes found themselves longing for entertainment and connection. Upon arrival in New Orleans, I put money on the phones of my friends and interlocutors so that we could stay in touch via WhatsApp, entering in this and other ways into the rush of efforts by family members and friends abroad to send support to islanders to help mitigate the crisis. Soon, I was in near-daily contact with many of the Saturday copy group. Through them, I learned that while the paquete continued to circulate and some copy places remained open, many closed. State television worked to fill this gap by expanding its entertainment programming. For their part, the women entertained themselves by watching the excess K-dramas they had stored on their hard drives. When their caches ran low, they improvised other solutions. One woman who has occasional access to the internet torrented some new K-dramas, which they then circulated among themselves, meeting to copy in their building hallways or on back patios while using face masks in an effort to maintain social distancing.

The women also kept in touch through telephone calls, forming a chain in which they included me to keep one another apprised of important events. Together, we worried when one woman was placed in a state quarantine facility or celebrated when my green card came through amidst new threats to immigration by the Trump Administration. Soon, though, this contact proved insufficient. Two months into quarantine, at the behest of a member of the group who, as a senior citizen, had been confined to her home for months, the women traveled by foot to meet at her apartment. When they woke me up through a WhatsApp video call on a Sunday morning, their smiling faces spoke a story. Cuba’s in-person media circulation depends on and produces dense networks of things and people and new urban spaces. Not only do these facilitate access to media and information that might otherwise be out of reach, they also provide opportunities for combating loneliness and creating sustaining connections. In addition to threatening the physical health and the already fragile economic situation of islanders, COVID-19 put these relations under strain, showing the essential role that media infrastructure can play in fostering a vibrant urban sociality. 


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