During his address to the Cuban people in Havana last week, President Obama called for expanded online access across the island and deemed the internet "one of the greatest engines of growth in human history."
"If you can't access information online... if you cannot be exposed to different points of view," Obama said, "you will not reach your full potential."
In the past two years, increasing numbers of Cubans have been going online, mostly through public Wi-Fi hot spots set up by the state telecom provider, ETECSA. But when compared with the rest of the world, the number of internet users on the island is paltry. Cuba is among the most restrictive countries in the world when it comes to internet access, according to Freedom House data. Of the 30 percent of Cubans who do connect to the internet, the vast majority check only email, which is cheap and fast.
Hopes are high that Raúl Castro, following suggestions Obama made during his visit, will implement expanded internet, but most people aren't holding their breath.
In the meantime, a group of Miamians has come up with a solution to the lackluster connectivity on the Island: an email-based internet search engine. The service, called Apretaste, is already being used by 40,000 Cubans, founder Salvi Pascual says. Pascual, who is from Cuba, has been living in Miami for five years.
"People who cannot access the web can still use these services," he says. In Cuba, "apretaste" is a common way to express that you got something right or, as Pascual explains, "that you nailed it."
Apretaste works by responding to email requests for online information sent to [email protected]. A user simply types keywords for a topic of interest into the email subject line, hits send, and waits for a response.
Among the most popular services, Pascual says, are Google Maps, Wikipedia, and weather. Apretaste even offers an online dating service.
So how does it work?
To search for ways to call the United States from Cuba, for instance, the subject line of an email to Apretaste might read, "Google call the United States from Cuba." Within seconds, the user receives an email full of links. Clicking on a result opens a new email and auto-fills the subject line. Within 30 to 60 seconds, the user receives a second email with results. If the user wants to view a website, the system generates a PDF of the information but strips out photos and other data that can lead to long load times and more expensive use.
"It's basically just like a browser in your email," Pascual says.
Though Apretaste has been live for three years, it's been greatly improved recently. Earlier this month, Apretaste and Florida Vocational Institute's Miami campus teamed up to host dozens of coders in a three-day "HeyCubaHackathon" to expand upon the Apretaste system with new tools and add-ons. Fifteen teams, including one from Cuba (via chatroom), competed for three top prizes.
The Cuban team snagged first place for creating a tool that compresses the amount of data Apretaste returns.
Pascual says he was "amazed" by the results and the community support. "People said they didn't go for the prizes, but just to do something great for Cubans."