Friday, June 10, 2016

A thesis on El Paquete -- a step toward quasi capitalism?

I skimmed the contents of a single edition of El Paquete recently but Dennisse Calle, a sociology student at Princeton University, looked at multiple Paquetes and interviewed distributors and users in researching her senior thesis El Paquete, A Qualitative Study of Cuba’s Transition from Socialism to Quasi-Capitalism.

After a literature review and description of her interview-focused research methodology, the thesis has chapters on the content, distribution/business organization and consumers of El Paquete. She began by classifying the content by type, as shown here.

Most of the content is entertainment -- television, movies and music. The users Calle interviewed "rarely referred to" the items in the "other" category, things like The Bible in audio, software, magazines, music videos, movie trailers, karaoke and (surprisingly) Cuban Music. The one exception was the weekly download of the Revolico want-ad site.

This led her to conclude that El Paquete functions primarily as a diverse alternative to Cuban television, so she drilled down on the television content, looking at its source and category. As shown here, over half of the content is from the U. S., exposing Cubans to U. S. culture and society.

Calle also looked at the genres of the 305 television shows. Soap operas and animations each accounted for 20% of the content and comedy and sitcoms each accounted for 13%. Educational programming accounts for 9% and drama 5%, leaving 20% for "other." The "other" shows included news, reality shows, competition shows, exercise shows, food shows, and talk shows. You can draw your own conclusions as to how these allocations reflect Cuban taste and influence their view of the outside world.

She also investigated the distribution organization. The top level consists of unknown compilers who collect the content. Below them are packagers who put the weekly distribution together, inserting local content, including ads, that varies around the country. At the bottom of the organization are distributors who sell it to everyday Cubans -- from store fronts or door to door.

From the compilers to the distributors, this is a capitalist business, but the distributors blend capitalism and sharing. Calle interviewed five distributors -- three with storefronts and two who went to customer's homes. Some transactions were done at "list" price, but not all. For example, a distributor might offer a low price or free content to someone who could not afford to pay more or to family and friends.

Of the 45 people Calle interviewed, 17 paid for or at some point had paid for El Paquete and 28 did not pay for it. Those who paid were distributors, self-employed cuentapropistas, workers for state enterprises, a student, an artist and one person with family abroad. The 28 who did not pay got their content from a friend, neighbor or family member.

While not profit maximizing, this sharing and discretionary pricing builds social capital, which one day may yield monetary returns and is valuable as an end it itself. As Richard Feinberg points out, Cubans have been brought up to believe that equity and social solidarity are important goals.

Calle sees El Paquete as one factor (along with remittances, tourism, self-employment, etc.) contributing to the transformation of Cubans' sense of self -- seeing Cuba in a global perspective and seeing themselves as consumers with discretionary, luxury spending power:
In a country where materials, shopping, and consumption are limited to food and maybe clothing, El Paquete becomes a luxury, a form of asserting one’s independence from the state’s attempts to suppress individuality.
Consumer choice is not the only element of capitalism surrounding El Paquete. Advertising is another -- El Paquete provides businesses with a means of mass-market advertising. Cubans are also aware of copyright, and Calle reports that many consumers would prefer to obtain the content legally.

Competition is essential for successful capitalism and, in some cases, the retail distributors have a choice of packager and the end users have a choice of retail vendor. This leads to capital investment (perhaps a fast PC for duplicating files), good customer service and the emergence of entrepreneurship. (It is said that El Paquete is the largest private employer in Cuba).

If Cuba can exploit positive aspects of capitalism within a society that continues to value equity and social solidarity, we may see a uniquely Cuban capitalism from which we can all learn.

The thesis is not online, but you can request a copy from the author, dcapupp at princeton.edu.
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