Cuban ride-hailing app creators tout benefits for U.S. travelers amid new travel ban

“We are young, Cuban entrepreneurs and we have created an app that is 100 percent ours,” one of the founders said.
Image: Cuba Sube App Travel
Alexander Hernandez, a Sube driver, waits for a customer on Linea Street, in Havana, Cuba on Dec. 16, 2019.Roberto Leon / NBC News Havana Bureau

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By Orlando Matos and Carmen Sesin

HAVANA — A group of young Cuban entrepreneurs say a phone app they developed over a year ago may help U.S. travelers now that the Trump administration has restricted all flights to Cuban cities except the capital, Havana.

The Uber-like app called “Sube,” (which loosely translates to "hop in") allows travelers to reserve a car to pick them up at José Martí International Airport in Havana and take them to another part of the island; some provinces are as much as five or six hours away.

Claudia Cuevas Alarcón, 27, Damián Martín, 26, and Darién González, 27, launched the app a year ago to allow Cubans to use their phone to find nearby taxis and negotiate a price.

“We knew the trouble people go through in Cuba to get to work every day, to get home, or if they just want to go out,” Alarcón, who is also licensed to work in the tourism business, said.

The app, which has been downloaded 10,000 times and has 6,000 registered users, was launched after the government began offering mobile internet access in December 2018. Sube's drivers are required to be licensed and have their cars in top shape — something essential when traveling long distances in a country where most cars tend to be old.

The restrictions on flights were another rollback of the friendlier relationship that former President Barack Obama began with Cuba in 2014. Obama restored direct commercial flights to Cuba in 2016, making it easier for U.S. travelers — particularly Cuban Americans who visit relatives in provinces far from Havana — to travel there.

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But in October, President Donald Trump’s administration announced it would ban all U.S. flights to Cuba outside of Havana, effective Dec. 9.

Claudia Cuevas of SUBE, working with two of her collaborators, Gisel Paez and Judith Gonzalez.Roberto Leon / NBC News Havana Bureau

Now that those commercial flights have been canceled, travelers have been left with only private charter alternatives, which can be more expensive on airfares and luggage as well as more unreliable at times.

The news gave the young entrepreneurs the idea to expand their services.

The app, registered in the United States, allows travelers to reserve a ride and pay with their credit cards before reaching Cuba — a convenience, since U.S. credit cards cannot be used on the island. Once in Cuba, the payments need to be made in cash.

Creating the app was no easy task; the entrepreneurs spent a year working at home to develop it and when they needed to connect to the internet, they would work from a WiFi hot spot at a nearby park.

The work paid off. Cubans like Patricia Perez, 32, a private entrepreneur who works as a translator, use the app.

Damian Martin, the web-designer and co-founder of Sube in Sube's office in Havana, Cuba on Dec. 6, 2019.Roberto Leon / NBC News Havana Bureau

Perez said she prefers using Sube since it's fast, reliable and available 24 hours a day. “I use Sube because it is, right now, the most powerful tool I have to move in the city."

Cuevas said they are continuing to improve the app so the connection is quicker and more stable.

"Our biggest challenge is the quality of internet connectivity in this country,” Cuevas said.

They offer rides in regular cars, as well as the old classic American cars to which tourists gravitate. Users also have an option of reserving a ride through the messaging app WhatsApp.

“We are young, Cuban entrepreneurs and we have created an app that is 100 percent ours,” Cuevas said.

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