President Bush announced Wednesday that Americans soon will be allowed to send cell phones to Cubans — a move that he hopes will push the communist regime to increase freedom of expression for Cuban citizens.
Addressing recent changes in Cuba, Bush said, "Cubans are now allowed to purchase mobile phones, DVD players and computers and they have been told that they will be able to purchase toasters and other basic appliances in 2010."
"If the Cuban regime is serious about improving life for the Cuban people, it will take steps necessary to make these changes meaningful," Bush said at the White House as he marked Cuba's 106th anniversary of independence this week.
If the Cuban people can be trusted with mobile phones, "they should be trusted to speak freely in public," he said.
Dan Fisk, National Security Council senior director for Western hemisphere affairs, emphasized that the new policy, which is to take effect in a few weeks, is not a loosening of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, but a change in U.S. regulations that will allow cell phones to be in gift parcels that Americans can send to Cubans.
The Cuban government had no immediate comment on whether the onslaught of new cellular phones would make it through the island customs without incident.
Joe Garcia, former head of the Cuban American National Foundation who is running to unseat Republican Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, called the new cell phone rule a cosmetic policy change.
"If George Bush were serious about effectuating change in Cuba, he would immediately grant Cuban-Americans unrestricted family visitation and remittance rights," he said.
He said Bush's move is designed to help the GOP win votes from Cuban-Americans in the upcoming presidential election.
"This is nothing more than political gamesmanship in an election year with the emotions of the Cuban people, which have already suffered through 50 years of a brutal regime and eight years of an incompetent administration," Garcia said.
Service not always reliable
American cell phones with service contracts from the U.S. work on some parts of the island, but service is not always reliable and depends on the phones' specifications.
Fisk said U.S. cell phones do work in Cuba, and Americans can also pay for the U.S. cell service attached to the phones they send.
At the White House, Bush repeated his offer to license U.S. non-governmental organizations and faith-based groups to provide computers and Internet to the Cuban people.
"If Cuban rulers will end their restrictions on Internet access, and since Raul is allowing Cubans to own mobile phones for the first time, we're going to change our regulations to allow Americans to send mobile phones to family members in Cuba," Bush said.
He said that if Raul Castro, who took the country's reins when his brother, Fidel, stepped down as president in February, is serious about his reforms, he will allow the phones to reach the Cuban people.
'The world is watching'
Since becoming Cuba's first new president in 49 years, Raul Castro has abolished bans that barred Cubans from owning cell phones in their own names, staying in tourist hotels and buying DVD players, computers and coveted kitchen appliances. He also has acknowledged that state salaries are too small to live on, and pledged steady improvements.
"It is the height of hypocrisy to claim credit for permitting Cubans to own products that virtually none of them can afford," Bush told about 200 guests in the East Room.
"The world is watching the Cuban regime," Bush said. "If it follows its recent public gestures — by opening up access to information, implementing meaningful economic reforms, respecting political freedom and human rights — then it can credibly say it has delivered the beginnings of change.
"But experience tells us this regime has no intention of taking these steps. Instead its recent gestures appear to be nothing more than a cruel joke perpetuated on a long-suffering people."
Associated Press writer Laura Wides-Munoz in Miami contributed to this report.