US turns off billboard in its Cuba mission
The Obama administration has pulled the plug on an electronic billboard outside the American diplomatic mission in Havana that was used to tweak the Cuban government with pro-democracy messages and became a symbol of the bad blood between the two countries.
When the billboard went up in 2006, some saw it as an innovative diplomatic stick in the eye of the government of Fidel Castro. Others, though, considered the 25 electrical panels installed by the Bush administration in the fifth-floor windows of the American Interests Section to be fundamentally silly.
Mr. Castro, who ceded the presidency to his brother Raúl last year, was clearly not amused by the bright red messages, many of which criticized his government for human rights abuses.
In response, he blocked the message board with huge black flags hanging on 100-foot-high flag poles and erected billboards nearby that denounced President George W. Bush. Cuban security guards were also stationed in strategic spots to shoo away any Cubans who might gaze upward at the five-foot-high news ticker, which overlooked the Malecón, Havana’s coastal highway.
President Obama, while keeping in place the economic embargo of Cuba, has taken a series of steps to improve relations with the government. The unplugging of the billboard, which was done quietly last month, follows a loosening of travel restrictions and the beginning of migration talks with the Cuban government.
“We believe that the billboard was really not effective as a means of delivering information to the Cuban people,” the State Department spokesman, Ian Kelly, said Monday. He noted that the Cuban government had removed some of its negative billboards around the mission earlier this year, which he said the United States viewed as “a positive gesture.”
The billboard’s messages ran the gamut. There were sports scores and news items that had nothing to do with Cuba. But there were also political messages, like the one tweaking the Cuban government’s elite for navigating the island in fancy cars while the masses were forced to hitchhike.
The United States and Cuba broke diplomatic relations in 1961, but still engage with each other in various ways.
“Taking down the billboard has permitted both sides to act like mature adults,” said Robert A. Pastor, a professor of international relations at American University. “That’s the most hopeful thing we’ve seen.”
But not everyone viewed it that way. “The only people that are happy about having the news ticker turned off are the Castro brothers,” said Mauricio Claver-Carone, director of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC in Washington.
Source: The New York Times