Failing internet and Game of Thrones fandom turned Cuban kids into fake spies

For many years in Cuba, getting online to watch a show or to download the latest game meant using tools and methods reminiscent of spycraft and espionage. It went a bit like this: An information broker known as a paquetero sits in his cramped, street-facing office, surrounded by monolithic PC towers, kept cool by a couple of overworked desk fans. He looks up as the PC in front of him pings, alerting him that a 1 TB data file called a paquete has finished downloading. He pops a thumb drive into the PC’s USB slot and begins copying over the paquete’s contents. In a desk drawer, dozens of dozens more hard drives sit, waiting to be formatted, filled with the paquete’s data and doled out.

Just as the copy completes, the office door opens and a middle-aged woman walks in, a shopping bag full of the day’s groceries slung over one shoulder. The paquetero barely glances up as he snatches the freshly copied thumb drive and hands it over to the woman, who exchanges it for a small bundle of bills. The exchange is wordless, perfunctory. The woman hefts her bag slightly higher on her shoulder before turning and walking out into the blinding sunlight and sounds of the street. Later, maybe after dinner, she uploads the paquete to her pillar, the central node of her local network. From a Wi-Fi transponder strapped to a pole 15 feet above the roof of her local network administrator, the paquete unspools the lengthy list of contents out into the neighborhood, its terabyte of pure data floating invisibly out, ready to be plucked.

Somewhere within that invisible net, perhaps in an apartment a few blocks away, a teenager excuses himself from the dinner table and makes his way into his bedroom. There, he hops down in front of his PC and logs onto a TeamSpeak chatroom buzzing with activity. The freshly uploaded paquete sits at the top of the list, and he opens it, scrolling down a few pages until he finds something that interests him and sets it to download.

This process may have all the trappings of the illicit side of the internet, and feel like a peek into its dark underbelly, where men in dark suits and slick haircuts exchange precious secrets stolen from corporations or the government. But the paquete contains nothing more or less than a curated snapshot of the internet. It’s news websites, photo journals, games, movies, and the latest TV series from around the world. The young man browsing its contents has as much likelihood of grabbing an episode of Game of Thrones as downloading the latest Taylor Swift album or that year’s FIFA. Though the mode of accessing the information may exist through a framework of murky legality, hacked-together hardware, and mysterious actors, this isn’t a spy story, or not the typical one. Rather, it’s a story about access, by whatever inventive means necessary.

SNET, short for “Street Network,” was a phenomenon in Cuba that lasted from the early 2000s to 2019, when the Cuban government outlawed and replaced most of the infrastructure in favor of its own. SNET originated in Havana, and soon more Cuban cities including Matanzas and Pinar del Río had their own massive mesh networks, modeled on Havana’s original SNET.

Connecting to the internet has become easier and more affordable in Cuba, but in the first few years of the millennium it was an irregular and inconsistent venture. Web searches would as soon return 404s as they would provide useful results. Online gaming was a non-starter and there was not even a question of streaming the TV shows and movies taken for granted by the rest of the world.

In spite of this, people still found ways to do things on computers, especially when it came to things like video games. In an unreleased interview for the 2020 documentary “The Street Network,” one SNET user, Ander, noted: “Even though this country has been kind of cut off from general population, from general culture, it’s got a very, very — I would say, huge gaming community. Everyone, I mean, everyone waits for the E3 conferences and they just download them or get them on the [paquete] because they want to see what’s coming, you know? They always want to keep updated.”

[Ed. note: Emile Bokaer, one of the co-authors of this story, directed The Street Network.]

Friends often brought their computers to the same house and played games together. Sometimes these LAN parties would even burst from the bounds of one apartment and, through ethernet cords strung between windows and over air shafts, extend out into neighboring homes. But these parties, for the most part, were forced to remain local, shut off from the outside world thanks to the United States’ blockade and Cuba’s resultant limited access.

A Cuban teenager in sunglasses in an Abercrombie t-shirt and jean shorts stands by a receiver pole for the SNET signal Photo: Tijana Petrovic/Dogpatch Films

SNET was born out of this craving for access and connection, for what had previously been denied. It bypassed government restrictions, not out of some clandestine effort to steal secrets or access forbidden information, but to gain the kind of access denied to them by normal means. “I’m proud of SNET because it’s a true Cuban innovation,” Cuban economist Ricardo Torres proclaimed in The Street Network. “Our system is very much top-down, and this is essentially the opposite: This is a bottom-up way of doing something that is of interest to the people.”

Getting access to the network was not illegal, though anyone using it had to be cautious about their behavior so as not to violate local laws or upset the authorities. As such, SNET had to operate under the radar, invisible to most unless you knew precisely which threads to pluck, which people to ask about. The key to getting access to SNET was in finding your local administrator, an SNET user who looked over a local chunk of the network, someone who handed out login privileges — and revoked them for users who broke one of the network’s rules. These administrators might have also helped you figure out what kind of hardware you needed to get online, might have even organized a local pool so that others could help contribute funding to get you online. The admin was also responsible for maintaining the rules of SNET, which were robust and well enforced.

SNET may have carried the promise of personal liberation and free access to information, but in reality, it was a tightly controlled system with a big list of bannable offenses. There were some common-sense measures in order to keep the network from getting overburdened and bottlenecked: You were only allowed to download files at certain hours of the night and early mornings, for example. According to Ander: “You can play from morning to 2 a.m., but from 2 a.m. till morning it’s downloading time. And you’re not allowed to download during playing time, or you’ll get banned. We’ve gotten banned a few times because we were downloading a movie or show that we loved, and we forgot to pause the copy. At first it’s not much, maybe 45 minutes or so — just so you don’t do it again.”

Violating the download schedule was only considered a “minor offense.” The network’s most stringent rules were reserved not for its practical side, but its political one. On SNET, you were not allowed to talk about politics of any kind. On a positive note, you were also not allowed to be openly racist, homophobic, sexist, or express any other sort of bigoted view. Transgressing any of these rules was quickly and severely punished: banishment from SNET’s walled garden, with the only recourse being to beg the admin to be let back in.

All this self-policing was there due to the network’s liminal legal state. There was an unspoken understanding that SNET was allowed to run largely at the government’s discretion. The government was aware of everything that happened on SNET, the files in its directories, the chatter in its forums, the timelines of its ersatz social networks. Everyone on SNET operated with the understanding that they could be under surveillance at any time. Everyone acted like a spy with an obvious and ever present tail. As a result, with the inescapable understanding that everything you did was happening out in plain sight, users all had to act the part of the model citizen, had to always be on their best behavior, without a rebellious bone in their body. It was a tense arrangement, a form of freedom without truly being free. SNET was a glimpse of access from under a powerful, ever-watchful eye. The behavior of SNET users may have been technically clandestine, underground and under the table, but it was at the same time very public, hypervisible, with a sanctioned structure, carefully protected and kept in line by its vigilant administrators.

A young man with tied back black hair sits in a white chair in a dimly lit stonewalled room in Cuba playing a video game on a small laptop computer Photo: Tijana Petrovic/Dogpatch Films

In 2019, the Cuban government passed an act that made the long-range transmitters that allowed SNET to connect its various clusters across the island illegal. Without any ability to connect over long distances, the network was crippled, diminished down to its cantonized local clusters. The government claimed that SNET’s antennas would interfere with its own newly built infrastructure, meant to improve digital connectivity to the island. And, in the past few years, getting online through the government’s public service provider has become far easier and more reliable.

But for many of SNET’s original users, the network meant something more than that basic need to be online. SNET represented a collective effort to find connection and to gain access to more than what they had originally been dealt. Describing the experience of playing multiplayer games for the first time, Ander said: “It was something that was completely new, that was mind-blowing, sharing that experience, not just playing a game where you’re the hero and you’re just doing it on your own. It’s like you actually need people to help you win and that is really interesting and helps you connect with people in a different way.”

For most outside of Cuba, the internet has, for many years, been taken for granted. It does not hold the status of a rare treasure, a human right that had to be fought for, downloaded illicitly and snatched in bits and pieces, like crumbs fallen from an overladen table. Nowadays, the internet is often looked at skeptically, as something more full of bad than good, a cacophony of misinformation, propaganda, and battles between obnoxious, hyper-privileged power brokers. Particularly for those with enough privilege to work remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, the internet began to feel something like a cage, trapping us within doomy timelines and tiny Zoom windows.

SNET showed that this doesn’t have to be the only way. SNET was a triumph of collective action. It represented a need for access, a need so great that people took action on their own. They pooled their funds, strung up wiring, and fastened antennas to their roofs. Once online, they persevered despite their vulnerable legal status and being under heavy surveillance. So much was sacrificed just so they could gain access to the soccer scores of their favorite teams, the latest episodes of their favorite shows, and the newest installments of their favorite video games, like World of Warcraft, called “El WOW” by its devoted Cuban players. All this to be able to partake in the artistic and creative output of the rest of the world — and to partake in what was happening within Cuba’s borders as well.

SNET served, in its structure of connected clusters and data transmitting pillars, as something that allowed Cubans to connect with one another. As Idania del Río, founder of the Cuban fashion brand Clandestina, put it in The Street Network, “With increased internet access — beyond rum, tobacco, ‘la mulatta,’ son and salsa music, baseball, all of which is great… We’re getting to know more what Cuba really is, through its people.”