WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush announced an easing of restrictions on Wednesday to allow Americans to send cell phones to their families in Cuba, in what he portrayed as a test of the Communist country’s economic reforms.
Since Cuban President Raul Castro took over from his ailing brother Fidel Castro in February, he has undertaken several economic changes, such as allowing Cubans to buy computers, DVD players and mobile phones. But few people can afford them.
It was unclear how Bush’s plan might work. Potential obstacles include whether Cuba will allow the phones in, if they will work there, and how the expensive bills will be paid.
“If Raul is serious about his so-called reforms, he will allow these phones to reach the Cuban people,” Bush said at a White House ceremony on Cuba in which he scathingly described the Cuban reforms as a ‘cruel joke’ on the country’s people.
“Through these measures the United States is reaching out to the Cuban people, yet we know that life will not fundamentally change for Cubans until their form of government changes,” Bush said.
At odds with Havana since soon after Fidel Castro’s 1959 revolution, Washington has maintained a decades-long economic embargo against Cuba and the Bush administration has firmly upheld it, despite calls both in the United States and abroad to loosen it. Bush has been dismissive of prospects for political change under Raul Castro.
White House officials stressed that the change on mobile telephones was merely an extension to the U.S. existing policy that permits gift parcels to be sent to families in Cuba rather than a crack in the embargo.
Dan Fisk, National Security Council senior director for Western Hemisphere affairs, said phones sold in Cuba can cost $120 plus another $120 to activate them, though he did not say how much the service cost. The average monthly wage in Cuba is less than $20.
Fisk said that he believed the phones would work on the island, which lies 90 miles south of the Florida coast.
While U.S. wireless service is not available in Cuba, Americans could buy phones from companies like AT&T Inc. or T-Mobile because they use the same network technology available in Cuba, known as GSM, but they would have to be activated by the Cuban state-run telephone company.
Currently, U.S. regulations allow U.S. families to send $100 a month to relatives in Cuba so that money could pay for service, according to White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe. The changes in U.S. regulations will likely take effect in the next couple of weeks.
The Cuban government had not yet commented on Bush’s announcement.
Bush also made it clear that there would be little change in policy toward Havana under Castro unless the Cuban people were given more freedom to speak, political prisoners were released and economic reforms were implemented.
“But experience tells us this regime has no intention of taking these steps,” Bush said. “Instead, its recent gestures appear to be nothing more than a cruel joke perpetrated on a long-suffering people.”
Opponents of Bush’s policy on Cuba were critical of Wednesday’s move.
“It seems to me at a time when we’re seeing real reforms in Cuba all the way from decentralization in agriculture to allowing Cubans new personal liberties, President Bush is wrong to dismiss these changes as a cruel joke, and he’s wrong to position the United States against the process of change in Cuba,” said Sarah Stephens, director of the Center for Democracy in America.
Rep. Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican who supports lifting the embargo, said, “If we’re expressing solidarity with the dissidents, it seems to me we ought to maybe listen to what they’re asking for, and overwhelmingly over the years the dissidents have said this isolation is not helping.”
Additional reporting by Tabassum Zakaria, and Jeff Franks in Havana; Editing by Frances Kerry and Anthony Boadle