A popular wifi zone is in front of the Havana Libre hotel, which was a Hilton before Fidel Castro seized it. Image: David Osit for Motherboard
More and more Cubans are getting access to the internet, thanks to government Wi-Fi hotspots and a loosening of trade restrictions with the US. However, many locals still don’t have access to the web or can’t afford it.
That’s why not-for-profit Miami startup Apretaste set up a system to allow Cubans to browse the web via email, which more people have access to. Only about 400,000 Cubans can freely browse the web, according to Apretaste, but 2.6 million have access to email.
The service is simple. Users can get the Wikipedia entry for Cuba, for example, by sending an email to email@example.com with the subject line “Wikipedia Cuba.” Apretaste will download the Wikipedia page in Spanish, compress it to minimize the size of the resulting HTML file, and email it to back to the user.
In addition to searching Wikipedia, Apretaste also runs a Craigslist-like service that connects buyers and sellers in Cuba.
To browse the online store, users send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with a subject of, for example, "TIENDA carro" [STORE car] to search for people buying and selling cars. Users can also publish for sale or wanted ads using the email interface.
Apretaste includes a number of other services, including an online translation service, and also lets users check the weather and download maps.
Roughly 25-30 percent of Cuba’s 11 million citizens have access to the country’s island-only intranet, according to Freedom House, a US-based watchdog organization dedicated to the expansion of freedom and democracy around the world.
Cubans on the intranet can use email accounts on local email servers to communicate with the rest of the world, but are not allowed to use foreign email services like Gmail. Freedom House estimates 5 percent of Cubans have access to the global internet, which is heavily censored. Dissident news sites, the Revolico classified service, foreign email providers, and all VoIP calls are blocked, according to Freedom House. Facebook and Twitter are blocked most of the time.
"It's much harder to censor email in Cuba than it is to censor web traffic," Apretaste founder Salvi Pascual said. While many Cuban internet users rely on the government-run Nauta.cu or Enet.cu email services, there are thousands of email servers on the island. "Every workplace and college has their own email servers."
Apretaste currently processes around 45,000 emails from roughly 10,000 unique visitors per month, and Pascual expects the service to continue growing. He plans to add an email interface to Facebook and Twitter, so that Cuban users can participate in social media via email.
Apretaste won the 2014 Hackathon for Cuba in Miami, and has grown ever since. A couple weeks ago at FossetCon, a free and open source software conference in Florida, Pascual told the audience about Apretaste, and added that, during a visit to Cuba in February, he wound up in jail for his work. (Motherboard was unable to independently confirm this, but the Cuban government doesn’t exactly publicize these types of arrests.)
"It was an intense experience," he wrote in an email. "I was in jail for four months in Cuba because they want to know more about Apretaste and the job I was doing. It was awful, and that is an experience that I am not very good at telling, and there is no much excitement about it."
"It was just a bad time that made stronger my will to keep sending uncensored sources of information to the people of Cuba," he added.
Apretaste does not receive government funding, Pascual said, but instead relies on donations from private individuals, so future developments depend on donations of time and money. The code is available on GitHub.
In October, researchers at Northwestern University presented findings that Cuban internet infrastructure is "among the poorest in the Americas." It's almost one of the most expensive—in a country where the average monthly wage is $20, Cubans pay $2/hour for internet and $1/MB to check email on their phones.
"Apretaste definitely fills a need," José Luis Martínez from the Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, an NGO based in Miami, told Motherboard in a phone call.
"About a year ago," he said, "the Cuban government for the first time allowed for Cubans to have access to basic email on their phones. But they aren't allowed to have internet on their phones, that's why this is such an interesting project."
"Cubans both on and off the island are constantly looking for creative workarounds to get more information," Martinez said. "[Apretaste] are taking advantage of this crack in the system."