Cuba Discovers the Digital Book

Without an Internet Connection

Guillermo Nova (dpa)

More than 2,000 eBooks are on sale at Cuba’s International Book Fair until February 22. Of these, a little over 60 are multimedia products offered in CDs or DVDs.

HAVANA TIMES — Despite one of the worst levels of Internet connectivity in the world, Cuba continues to take shy steps towards the digital world.

Be it Fifty Shades of Grey, now a US blockbuster, or Cuban novelist Leonardo Padura’s bestseller The Man Who Loved Dogs, informal book downloads are today swelling the databases of Cuba’s still scarce but coveted e-readers.

This incipient phenomenon is flourishing like the weekly “package,” an informal compilation of pirated materials downloaded from the Internet that are practically delivered to the homes of consumers in Havana and other cities.

More than 2,000 eBooks are on sale at Cuba’s International Book Fair until February 22. Of these, a little over 60 are multimedia products offered in CDs or DVDs.

These publications address issues ranging from the classics of universal literature, through economics to cooking. One of the fair’s highlights is a CD containing an anthology of erotic texts by several different authors.

The discs or flash drives aim to make up for the digital distribution issues faced by a country where, according to data from the International Telecommunications Union, only 3.4 percent of the population had access to the Internet in 2013.

The annual book fair, now in its 24th edition, wishes to make new formats available to readers. This year, it held the first Cuban Digital Book Competition in the island’s history. Participants compete in the categories of editing, design and cultural relevance.

There is still much room for growth. Wally Thompson, director of ISBN’s Cuban Agency, told the science journal Juventud Tecnica that, at present, only 45 percent of Cuba’s 175 publishing houses publish digital books.

That said, this figure represents significant growth when compared to the 20 percent reported in previous years.

As is often the case in Cuba, users tend to be ahead of government policy. A growing number of Cubans have e-readers, received as gifts from their relatives abroad, and they try to fill these with books whichever way they can.

Yuniek Garcia, for instance, waits in line to catch his bus while reading Fifty Shades of Grey on his iPad.

He tells us he got his hands on a PDF version of the book which came with one of the weekly “packages.” The “package”, which offers a weekly compilation of foreign films, magazines and television shows, is one of Cuba’s most popular of informal products.

“I have all of the Harry Potter books. You can’t get these at Cuban bookstores, not even in digital format, because they have to pay steep copyright fees,” Yuniek tells us.

This student has over 20 books stored in his tablet, reading these during the two-hour bus ride from the university to his house, in a municipality on the outskirts of Havana.

Cuba’s fiction offer still leaves a lot to be desired, as State publishing houses themselves confess. “Despite great efforts to promote reading and to produce hundreds of books every year, the country imports very few works of fiction,” Gustavo Blanco, director of Cuba’s digital publisher Cubaliteraria tells DPA.

The long-standing political conflict between Cuba and the United States has also hitherto had an impact on digital publications. Major distributors such as Amazon and many manufacturers of electronic readers, such as Kindle, are US companies, and many electronic payment systems such as PayPal (which require the use of a credit card) cannot be utilized from Cuba.

The diplomatic thaw between the two countries could bring about change. For instance, companies such as MasterCard and American Express have announced that they will commence operations on the island. The main problem could then become the price of these e-books, which would surely prove too high in a country where the average salary is about 20 dollars a month.

Some Cuban State bookstores, such as Havana’s Alma Mater, offer users up to 500 GB of royalty-free downloads. “Our main objective is to get people to read, which is why we aren’t thinking about making a profit,” bookstore manager Adalberto Hernandez tells DPA.

These materials may be downloaded at Alma Mater in the course of an hour for only five Cuban pesos (a little less than US 20 cents). The offer, however, does not include books like the ones Yuniek likes to read.

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  • Welcome to the 21st century.

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