Thursday, January 26, 2006

Cockroaches Upset

Castro says billboard threatens U.S. ties

January 26, 2006

By Anthony Boadle

HAVANA (Reuters) - President Fidel Castro said on Wednesday the electronic billboard flashing human rights messages from the U.S. Interests Section in Havana threatened the few diplomatic ties between the United States and Cuba.

But he said Cuba, which has not had formal diplomatic relations with Washington since 1961, had nothing to lose.

"The only purpose of this garbage is to provoke the destruction of those tenuous links, as if we needed them," Castro told foreign reporters.

The two governments, bitter enemies since Castro came to power in a 1959 revolution, do not have formal diplomatic relations. Interests offices were opened in each other's capital during U.S. President Jimmy Carter's administration. Washington has enforced sanctions against Cuba since 1962.

Castro accused U.S. diplomats of breaking the rules of international diplomacy by funding his opponents and "smuggling" tons of equipment into Cuba in diplomatic pouches, including cameras and radios handed to dissidents.

Cuba, which buys $400 million a year in food imports from the United States under an exception to the U.S. trade embargo, had taken steps to guarantee alternative supplies, Castro said.

The Cuban leader spoke to reporters during a night time visit to workers building a structure in front of the U.S. Interests Section that will apparently block the view of the electronic billboard.

Brigades of workers began the task on Tuesday night, hours after Castro and hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched past the mission to protest the 5-foot-high (1.5-metre) ticker that streams messages across the facade of the Interests Section.

U.S. diplomats said Cuba's communist authorities were building a wall or screen to obstruct the view of the ticker, which displays messages to the Cuban people, news headlines and quotes from Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi and Lech Walesa.

"Building walls to isolate Cubans from the rest of the world is what the regime knows best," a spokesperson for the Interests Section said.

Cuban officials said they were extending an open-air stage that has been the main venue for political rallies against the United States since 2000.


The ticker across the 25 windows of the fifth floor of the Interests Section on Havana's Malecon waterfront is a new salvo in a decades-old propaganda war between Washington and Havana.

Last year, Cuba set up billboards with pictures of abused Iraqi prisoners at the site in reply to a Christmas decoration displaying the number of dissidents jailed in a political crackdown.

On Tuesday, Castro called U.S. diplomats "cockroaches" and accused the administration of President George W. Bush of seeking a new crisis between the United States and Cuba with "perfidious" provocations.

As Castro spoke from a podium, the U.S. ticker flashed "Conservatives win elections in Canada" and other news headlines in bright letters in full view of the marchers.

The headlines were followed by quotes from Lincoln, Gandhi and Walesa, founder of the Solidarity movement that toppled Poland's communist government and helped bring about the collapse of Soviet control over Eastern Europe.

The ticker began flashing messages on Jan. 16 with the words "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up" from civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1963 speech.

U.S. diplomats said they wanted to break the "information blockade" or censorship of Cuba's state-run media.

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