Wednesday, May 21, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) President Bush announced today 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, Mr. 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,” Mr. 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, said the Bush administration will be interested in seeing if the Cuban regime allows the cell phones to enter the country.

Fisk 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 sent to Cubans.

Since becoming Cuba’s first new president in 49 years, Raul Castro has done away with bans that prohibited 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.

“If Raul is serious about his so-called reforms, he will allow these phones to reach the Cuban people,” Mr. Bush told about 200 guests in the East Room, including former Cuban political prisoners, Cuban-American community leaders and representatives from leading national and international non-governmental organizations.

Fidel Castro, 81, has not been seen in public since July 2006, when he underwent emergency intestinal surgery and relinquished power to Raul Castro. Fidel Castro formally stepped down as president in February, but keeps a presence through essays published in state media.

“The world is watching the Cuban regime,” Mr. 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.”

In what he billed as the first annual “Day of Solidarity with the Cuban People,” Mr. Bush reiterated U.S. commitment to freedom and democracy in Cuba. He challenged the Castro regime to back up newly announced reforms with real changes that will advance liberty on the island, such as free access to information, economic reform and political freedom.

As he does in nearly every speech on Cuba, Mr. Bush highlighted the suffering of Cuba’s political prisoners and called for their release.

The White House event coincided with events in more than 30 countries around the world to mark Cuban Independence Day on May 20 and other events in Cuban history. These events include the death on May 19, 1895 of Jose Marti, a leader of the Cuban independence movement from Spain, and the death on May 25, 1972 of Pedro Luis Boitel, a student leader opposed to the Castro regime who died while on a hunger strike in prison.

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