U.S. President George Bush is marking a day of solidarity with the Cuban people by allowing people in the United States to send cellular telephones to family in Cuba. VOA White House Correspondent Scott Stearns has the story.
President Bush says a series of economic and political reforms announced by Cuba's new president Raul Castro have not improved life on the island.
"Political dissidents continue to be harassed, detained, and beaten," said President Bush. "And more than 200 prisoners of conscience still languish in Castro's tropical gulag."
Raul Castro took power in February when his brother Fidel became too ill to rule. Among the changes made by the first new president in 49 years is a lifting of the ban against Cubans staying in tourist hotels. People can now purchase computers and DVD players and may own a cell phone in their own name.
"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. "Now that the Cuban people can be trusted with mobile phones, they should be trusted to speak freely in public."
Now that Cubans are allowed to buy DVD players, President Bush says they should be allowed to watch movies and documentaries produced by Cuban artists who are free to express themselves. He says greater access to computers should come with open access to the Internet.
But most of those products are still too expensive for many Cubans. So President Bush is changing some of the rules governing gift parcels to the island to allow Americans to send cell phones to family in Cuba.
White House officials say the change should take several weeks to implement and does not affect America's long-standing trade embargo against the Communist state.
With cell phone handsets costing about $120 in Cuba, it would be a significant savings as handsets in the United States cost as little as $20.
Asked if the White House believes those U.S.-purchased phones will be allowed on the Cuban network, National Security Council Director for the Western Hemisphere Dan Fisk said that is up to Raul Castro.
President Bush says the world is watching the Cuban regime.
"If it follows its recent public gestures by opening up access to information and implementing meaningful economic reforms, respecting political freedom and human rights, then it can credibly say it has delivered the beginnings of change," said Mr. Bush. "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."
The first day of solidarity with the Cuban people comes in a week when Cubans celebrate their independence day and mark the death of Jose Marti, a leader of Cuban independence from Spain.