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Cuba’s piracy-fueled love affair with gaming, pop culture

Where piracy operate like a deli

Items for sale at Infinity
| Photos by Brian Crecente/Polygon, collage by Emily Haasch

Media piracy in Cuba isn't just rampant; it's a way of life.

Terabytes of data come into the country nearly daily through smugglers, internet connections and satellite feeds, immersing the country and its people in a never-ending flood of Game of Thrones, Resident Evil, The Bachelor, great Dreamworks flicks and questionable Matt Damon movies.

Despite trade embargoes and socialist government censorship, Cuba floats in a sea of commercialism fueled by United States pop culture and, thanks to the rules meant to keep it out, all of that content costs almost nothing, even for those living on a Cuban's low monthly salary.

The Cuban government isn't just ambivalent to the piracy; it participates in it, often broadcasting pirated television shows, selling tickets to pirated movies at state run movie theaters and even licensing some resellers of media content.

The complex issues of copyright and piracy in Cuba are perhaps the biggest challenges the country's emerging gaming culture faces as it struggles to expand past the socialist country's borders and be welcomed into the global gaming community.

It's not the sort of game buying experience I'm used to.

I'm sitting in the tidy tiled backroom of Infinity just down the street from Havana's famed Coppelia, a massive complex of ice cream shops built by Fidel Castro in the '60s to introduce the Cuban people to the frozen treat. Across the street, dozens of people from all walks of life mill about in a mostly concrete park, some sitting on small patches of grass or park benches, all staring down at their cellphones or laptops, swimming in the country's only form of internet, paid for with $2 scratch tickets. Nearby looms the state-run Hotel Habana Libre, once the revolutionary headquarters of Castro (and before that the country's Hilton).

But here, past the green Infinity canopy and front cellphone repair desk, people line up for a chance to sit where I'm sitting and buy copies of the latest television shows, movies, music and video games. The content is nearly all from the United States and it nearly all preaches the sort of ideals and morals that seem to be a polar opposite of Cuba's socialist government.

There's a sort of unnoticed irony that Cubans who live off a $25 a month income and government socialist support wait in line to buy the pop-culture exports of a country that has embargoed its goods here for more than half a century.

The Habana Libre hotel
The Habana Libre hotel
Brian Crecente/Polygon

The room's walls are painted green and white to match the Infinity logo. I'm at one of four small tables, sitting next to an advisor of sorts, as he shows me what video games are available to purchase. A large television on the wall plays trailers for movies just now hitting theaters in the U.S. on an endless loop.

The biggest expense for my outing to Infinity isn't the two movies or the game I buy, but the 32 gigabyte thumb drive they sell me, because the one I brought with me doesn't have nearly enough room.

Infinity sort of looks like a bank and operates a bit like a deli, but instead of selling its goods by the pound, Infinity sells it by the gigabyte.

I end up spending less than a dollar for copies of Sing and Moana -- both feature multiple language options including English and appear to be as sharp as what you'd find on a DVD or on cable -- as well as Resident Evil 7, which is loaded on my drive, cracked and ready to play.

When I first arrive, walking over to my advisor who sits under a painting of a black Madonna with child, I'm overwhelmed by the sheer size of the selection. Through my translator, my advisor asks what I'm looking for. It turns out they have games that go well back into the Atari era. So I ask him what the newest titles are.

An Infinity rep helps a customer with her selection
An Infinity rep helps a customer with her selection
Brian Crecente/Polygon

He pulls up a full screen of titles that starts alphabetically with Ballistic and ends with Ys Origin. While there are some major releases on the list like the latest Doom and Dragon's Age, I can't help but noticed it's packed with indies as well.

Next I ask for Resident Evil 7 and my advisor brings up a list of Resident Evil games that seems to include every Resident Evil game ever made.

The advisor plucks my newly purchased thumbdrive from my hand and plugs it into the top of his computer to start the transfer process.

As I wait, I look around.

Across from me, a well-dressed woman with an expensive purse sits with another advisor picking out her selection of content. The third and fourth stations also have people choosing what they want to grab.

When I start to surreptitiously take a quick picture, one of the advisors notices me and smiles broadly, posing for the shot.

Before there were places like Infinity, a business technically set up to repair cellphones but which seems to attract much more traffic with its entertainment downloads, there was El Paquete Semanal: a weekly updated one terabyte hard drive that runners around the country use to sell content to anyone with the money and a thumb drive. For years, it has been seen as a sort of offline internet, a weekly snapshot of the world outside of Cuba as viewed through the lens of movies, music and video games.

“‘El Paquete was founded by several people, each with a desire to find a way to entertain their towns,” says one of the top distributors of the paquete in Havana who goes by the name Dany Paquete. “We wanted to find a way for the island to see the world in ways outside of politics, showing them culture, sports, entertainment, economy and society, showing them all the things going on in the world that weren’t making it to our TVs.

“It was created through a need to learn more and more about what was happening in the world around us, and not just what our TVs were showing us. Little by little, it increased as a form of consumerism, and we increased our knowledge of what was happening not just in America, but in continents across the world.”

But piracy in Cuba didn't start with the paquete, Laura-Zoe Humphreys says.

"It comes from long before that," says Humphreys, an assistant professor at the University of Manitoba's Department of Anthropology and an expert on Cuba film and piracy. "It is important to note that the whole history of copyright in Cuba is somewhat complicated.

"It's not coming out of nowhere."

Cuba's long history of media piracy includes Beatles records in the '60s, pirate radio stations, pirated VHS and DVDs, she says. Then in 2003, people started using flash drives and hard drives for informal exchanges of media.

The paquete is simply the evolution of all of that into a more efficient and widespread system, Humphreys says.

While it's hard to pinpoint the exact date when the paquete got started, Humphreys says that 2010 is a good ballpark. That's also when Raul Castro opened up licenses for vendors of DVDs and CDs and opened the doors to people operating legal small businesses out of their homes. And just two years earlier, Castro started allowing the official sale of some electronics, like DVD players, to regular citizens for entertainment in the country.

"That created a market for something like the paquete semanal," she says. "It included folders called combos, which included four or five movies as well as images of the official jacket covers, compressed into one file."

To try and operate as a Cuba-legal business, many of these media resellers received licenses for things like computer or cell phone repair, because there is no license for selling this content.

By 2011, Cuban artists, musicians and movie makers were already figuring out how to take advantage of the rampant piracy to help their own creations spread.

Humphreys says that one movie maker she talked to used the paquete to spread the trailer for his movie around the country, as most assume their works will be pirated. Selling content created in Cuba to Cubans is essentially an impossibility, so embracing piracy as a form of marketing has become a new norm. There's even a saying in Cuba that says you're not a hit if you're not in the paquete.

"It is widely known that musicians bring their music to pirates to have it pirated," Humphreys says. "They make money when people come to their shows, to their concerts."

While the government's ambivalence to piracy is problematic, just as problematic is the fact that most Cubans wouldn't be able to afford this content at the prices it sells for in the rest of the world.

"Piracy is rampant throughout many parts of the global south," Humphreys says. "Nobody has the money to buy these products. So when Netflix says, 'We're going to open in Cuba,' I don't know how. There’s no bandwidth at which Cubans can afford that cost."

The same could be said of video games, which often cost what would amount to two months of a typical Cuban's pay.

Infinity serves two major roles for Cubans. In the front of the store, people can bring their cellphones to be jailbroken or repaired. They can also buy small electronics, like VR headsets, phones or thumb drives. In the back it's all content, where people sit and shop for media.

"Infinity is a technology and informatics center where you can go and get series, movies, games and also you have phone apps," says Rafael Rivas, who runs Infinity's social media accounts in the country. "Anything you need that can be downloaded digitally.

"We usually get [media] the day after it comes out but some things, like movies in HD, don't come here too quickly because it's hard to find them online. As long as someone uploads them we get it."

What Infinity and stores like it do, essentially, is rely on a few people who scour the dark web and places like Pirate Bay looking for pirated content. Once they find it, they download it and ensure it's a legitimate, high quality copy and then add it to their library.

For games, that usually means they get the title the day after it arrives in stores in the U.S. Rivas said that Infinity has about 15 terabytes of computer and console games for sale. The games go back to the Atari 2600, but those older titles all need to run on an emulator on a PC, he says.

Infinity’s sign
Infinity’s sign
Brian Crecente/Polygon

Among the most popular in Cuba are role-playing titles, shooters and sports titles, he says. Also both the original Defense of the Ancients and DOTA 2 are very popular.

"They play on LANs usually and there are places here that people manage to get like, LAN parties," he says. "In one night we all, all of us, bring our laptops and play in some place. There are also places that rent laptops and consoles for doing that."

Increasingly, players also gather on Cuba's underground street network; a massive LAN created by gamers that can stretch throughout cities or between regions in the country. Both are highly illegal.

More common these days are these pop-up LAN parties, Rivas says. He regularly hosts gatherings of 15 or so people at his home to play impromptu FIFA 17 tournaments.

Like a lot of people in Cuba, Rivas tells me he grew up playing games in "arcades," which are homes where people rent out modded consoles filled with games by the hour. For Rivas, that meant endless hours playing Super NES titles and the like.

I ask Rivas if he has any concerns or regrets that all of the games he plays are pirated, something that would be illegal in the U.S.

"Actually," he says. "The only regret that we have is when the copyrights come to Cuba. That would be the time to regret something."

There are some who believe that piracy doesn't hurt just the economy and the people who create the products, but that the prolonged normalization of piracy can hurt the people who participate in it as well.

"People assume everything is free. The same thing happened with television," says Sebastian Arcos, associate director of Florida International University's Cuban Research Institute. "Three generations have been raised under the assumption that the state will pay for everything you have and the state will assign everything you have."

Arcos refers to this lasting way of thinking as a sort of anthropological damage done to Cubans by the Cuban Revolution.

"It's the erosion of personal integrity, of the work ethic," he says. "Of the morals. It’s not that Cubans are immoral; they’re not. It’s that they are amoral. They live in a state that forces them to behave like that."

To become a full member of the global social and economic community, Arcos says, Cuba needs to not just rebuild its infrastructure and economy, but the way its people views things like ownership and copyright.

"I think that there is a concept that anthropological damage has happened to certain notions in Cuba, like private property, like stealing in certain context, though in general it is morally frowned upon," says Ted Henken, a Latin American studies professor at Baruch College who has researched and written about Cuba's small businesses and internet. "In Cuba, economic crime is ubiquitous. It's ubiquitous for a lot of reasons.

"There's an old saying: It's one thing to destroy socialism and a whole other thing to build capitalism."

Cuba’s gaming revolution

You just read one entry in Polygon’s 12-part series on video games in Cuba. Check out the rest on our hub.

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