WASHINGTON - President Bush said yesterday that people living in the United States would soon be allowed to send cell phones to residents of Cuba - a move that he hopes will push that nation's communist regime to increase freedom of expression for its citizens.
"Cubans are now allowed to purchase mobile phones, DVD players and computers," Bush said of recently announced changes on the island, "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," he said at the White House as he marked Cuba's 106th independence anniversary.
Bush said that if Cubans could be trusted with mobile phones, "they should be trusted to speak freely in public."
Dan Fisk, National Security Council senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, said the new policy, which is to take effect in a few weeks, was not a loosening of the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, but a change in regulations that would allow cell phones to be in gift parcels that people living in this country may send to Cubans.
Cuba's government had no immediate comment.
American cell phones with service contracts from the United States work on some parts of Cuba, but service is not always reliable and depends on the phones' specifications. Fisk said those living in the United States could also pay for the U.S. cell service attached to the phones they send.
Bush repeated his offer to license U.S. nongovernmental organizations and religious groups to provide computers and Internet access to the Cuban people, "if Cuban rulers will end their restrictions on Internet access."
Since becoming Cuba's first new president in 49 years, Raul Castro, Fidel's brother, has abolished bans that barred Cubans from owning cell phones in their own names, from staying in tourist hotels, and from 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.
Bush told about 200 guests in the East Room, "It is the height of hypocrisy to claim credit for permitting Cubans to own products that virtually none of them can afford."
Democrat Joe Garcia, former head of the Cuban American National Foundation, who is running against Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart (R., Fla.), called Bush's new cell-phone rule a cosmetic policy change.
"If George Bush were serious about effectuating change in Cuba," Garcia said, "he would immediately grant Cuban Americans unrestricted family visitation and remittance rights."