Friday, January 27, 2006

Castro Retaliates With Flags

U.S. Mission in Cuba Becomes Lightning Rod for Bilateral Tensions


HAVANA, Cuba, Jan. 27, 2006 — Always-simmering tension between the United States and Cuba has burst out into the open over a news ticker mounted on the U.S. diplomatic mission that beams human rights and democracy messages in big crimson letters into the Havana night.

Cuban President Fidel Castro, after marching more than a million people by the building earlier this week, has ordered construction workers to extend an open-air stage in front of the mission right up to within yards of the gate. He plans to mount huge flags on the stage to block the ticker from view, a construction ministry source said.

The stage is called the anti-imperialist tribunal and was built during the tug of war between the United States and Cuba to have shipwreck victim Elian Gonzalez returned to his father from Miami. The venue is currently used for political and cultural events.

Cuba plans for the flags to fly by Saturday, the birthday of the country's founding father, Jose Marti, leader of the Caribbean island's independence war against Spain.

"We have five days to do this job, working 24 hours a day," a construction worker said on Tuesday when Cuban flag-sporting bulldozers and other heavy construction equipment began ripping up half of the U.S. diplomatic mission's parking lot.

Castro has waxed furious over the electronic sign, which he charges is a gross provocation aimed at torpedoing already fragile bilateral relations.

The sign has featured statements by famous U.S. figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, but also by those who helped bring down European communism such as former Polish President Lech Walesa.

The United States broke diplomatic relations and imposed economic sanctions on Cuba soon after Castro came to power in a 1959 revolution. Consular-level Interests Sections were established in 1977 to handle visa and other administrative matters. An immigration agreement was signed in 1994 and a few years later the two countries began cooperating to interdict drug smugglers.

Since 2001 Cuba has purchased U.S. food for cash under an exception to the embargo passed in 2000.

"It is clear when they decided to do this outrageous act and they could not have had in mind anything but a provocation to destroy fragile relations," Castro said Wednesday while visiting the construction site.

Castro charged the Bush administration had turned the Interests Section into a command post to "organize and direct the counterrevolution" and funnel money and supplies to his opponents.

President Bush has made no secret of his close political ties with the hard-line Cuban-American establishment in Florida, which advocates an end to all contact with
Cuba and a regime change.

However, Michael Parmly, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana, held a news conference on Thursday to say he found it strange that Cuba was upset by the ticker and to deny the United States was trying to provoke a rupture in relations.

"I see no reason to change what we are doing and we are simply trying to communicate with the Cuban people," he said.

Parmly said it would be a loss for both the Cuban and American people if all ties were ended.

"But we are going to keep trying to communicate with the Cuban people by any means we can," Parmly said, when asked what the United States would do if the electronic sign was blocked.

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