A "technical failure" has knocked out the only email service accessible on Cuban phones.
Image: David Osit for Motherboard
The Cuban government has shut down the island's only official email service provider and it's not clear when it'll come back.
The Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A. (ETECSA) announced in an official note Wednesday that it has had to "completely stop email services" in the country.
As is often the case in Cuba, the communist government hasn't given an official reason for the shutdown. Service on the island has been spotty for more than a week, according to Jose Luis Martinez, communications director at the Miami-based Foundation for Human Rights in Cuba, who is in regular communication with people on the island. Earlier this week, ETECSA said that the "infrastructure that supports the accounts has had a technical failure that affects the sending and receiving of emails."
"Unfortunately, a lot of things in Cuba are very obsolete and outdated and clunky"
While there's no law that stops Cubans from using Gmail or any other email service provider, the shutdown of all official email accounts, which are called Nauta accounts, will have huge ramifications for how people communicate on the island.
There is very little wifi access in Cuba and no mobile internet service for Cubans whatsoever, but standard cell phone service is pretty widespread. The Cuban government allows its citizens to send and receive text-based emails on mobile phones using standard cell signal and Nauta accounts. As a result, Nauta emails are how a lot of business gets done on the island, and it's how a lot of people communicate with those overseas while they're on the go.
"It's the only email you're allowed to have on your phone," Martinez told me.
Martinez says he's been trying to email people on the island and has had the emails bounced back to him with this message: "This message has not yet been delivered. It will will keep trying to be delivered."
"There's no way to understand what's going on—if it's a hack, if it's a technical issue because ETECSA is a very opaque organization," Martinez said. "Unfortunately, a lot of things in Cuba are very obsolete and outdated and clunky."
It's entirely possible the shutdown only lasts a couple days, but even if that's the case, it underscores the country's extremely shaky telecommunications infrastructure. Cuban leader Raul Castro says he wants to open the island up, but it has been very slow to get widespread internet service. At the moment, the country relies on a handful of wireless hotspots that are expensive, slow, and surveilled. Companies such as Verizon have launched wireless data service for American travelers to the island, but there's no indication from the government that the Cuban people are going to have better internet access anytime soon.