Bush to let Americans send cell phones to Cuba

President Bush says he is changing U.S. policy to allow people living in the U.S. to send cell phones to family and friends, now that the ban on these devices has been lifted.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
3 min read

President Bush said earlier this week that Americans will soon be able to send family members in Cuba cell phones in a move he hopes will bring more freedom to the communist island nation.

The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba, which has been in effect since the early 1960s, prohibits American companies from doing business there. Americans are also restricted from traveling to Cuba. And there are several restrictions regarding gifts given to people living in Cuba.

Dan Fisk, National Security Council senior director for Western hemisphere affairs, told the Associated Press that the new policy, which will take effect in a few weeks, is not an indication that the U.S. will loosen its economic embargo against Cuba. It is simply a policy change that will allow U.S. citizens to send cell phones in care packages to family members.

Bush also said during his speech, given at the White House commemorating the 106th anniversary of Cuban independence this week, that he'd allow faith-based organizations and nonprofit groups working with Cuba to provide computers and Internet access to the Cuban people.

The changes in U.S. restrictions come as Raul Castro, who took office in February, begins lifting several bans imposed by his brother Fidel Castro, who had ruled the island nation for 49 years. Specifically, he has lifted bans that had prohibited Cubans from owning cell phones and buying DVD players, computers, and kitchen appliances.

Bush said he was changing the policy with regard to cell phones in an effort to encourage the new leadership in Cuba to provide more freedoms to its 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," the president said in a speech. "If Raul is serious about his so-called reforms, he will allow these phones to reach the Cuban people."

Felipe Perez Roque, Cuba's foreign minister, called Bush's remarks "ridiculous" during a press conference on Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

"It was a decadent show, a speech irrelevant and cynical, an act of ridiculous propaganda," the AP quoted him as saying at the news conference. "Let him retire and leave the presidency."

Even though restrictions on cell phones and computers have been lifted in the communist country, it's difficult to say how much of an impact it will really have. Most people are still too poor to buy these luxury items. And even those receiving free cell phones from friends and relatives in the U.S. won't likely be able to afford a service plan so they can actually use their phones.

Cell phone service from U.S. operators can be accessed in parts of Cuba, but it's typically unreliable. The small wireless market that already exists in Cuba is controlled by Empresa de Telecomunicaciones de Cuba S.A., or ETECSA. The company has said it will soon offer prepaid contracts to the general public now that the ban has been lifted. Prepaid services are popular in other poor countries, such as the Philippines, where nearly everyone owns a cell phone. But pricing of the prepaid plans in Cuba is still uncertain.