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U.S.-Cuba Relations

Cuba’s Tech Revolution: ‘Digital Entrepreneur’ Helps Quench Thirst for U.S. Pop Culture

HAVANA — Deep in a ramshackle second-story apartment in a run-down neighborhood, one of Cuba’s most renowned 'digital entrepreneurs' is hoping to change his country.

The maze of electric cords and stray cats is hardly the place you would expect find to Elio Lopez, 26.

“What a young person in another country can do on the Internet, a Cuban can’t do,” he told NBC News.

Every week, Lopez and several other friends put together what they call El Paquete Semenal — “The Weekly Package” — a one-terabyte hard drive filled with pirated copies of international television shows, movies and mobile apps.

It includes everything from episodes of the HBO series "Game of Thrones" to "World’s Got Talent," the international edition of "America’s Got Talent." Recent additions: Amy Schumer's comedy "Trainwreck" and the season finale of HBO's "True Detective."

“We just didn’t have easy access to international culture,” Lopez said.

There’s no good estimate of how many people view El Paquete — but it has become a cultural phenomenon in its own right. Lopez says he has been told about watch parties in places far from Havana, such as Guantanamo — on the other end of the island.

The hard drive is copied and distributed to 100 people, who then distribute it to another 1,000 people — and so on. Some of his distributors — the “middlemen” — make more money than he does because they have more direct customers.

Every week, viewers pay several pesos — a subscription fee — in exchange for new content. Lopez said he isn't motivated by money. He said he feels responsible for bringing international pop culture to his country.

The government does not sanction what Lopez does. Then again, he’s been interviewed by media openly before — and there’s been no crackdown.

Lopez won’t discuss details of how he and his friends compile El Paquete, or where the base of operations is.

Lopez says Cuba has a thirst for connectivity. The vast majority of Cubans don't have home internet connections. In the past, some tried to get access at hotel lobbies.

Recently, Wi-Fi hot spots have increased access — but it still costs several dollars an hour, which is out of reach for most Cubans.

Lopez welcomes the thawing of relations between both countries and raising of the American flag at the reopened U.S. embassy.

“We have this thorn that the U.S. and Cuba have had for the last 50 years, but I think that can help us open our cultural level,” he says. “It’s appropriate for our country, since we’re so close (to the U.S.).”

“I think it’ll be a 360 degree turn.”