Friday, January 27, 2006

U.S.-Cuba Battle Over Billboard Heats Up

Thu, Jan. 26, 2006

BY GARY MARX, Chicago Tribune

HAVANA - The top U.S. diplomat in Havana on Thursday defended the decision last week to install a huge electronic sign on the facade of the American diplomatic mission with streaming text of news and sayings about freedom.

"What we are trying to do is communicate with the Cuban people," said Michael Parmly, chief of the U.S. Interests Section.

But Cuban President Fidel Castro denounced the sign and other U.S. measures, saying the United States is intent on sparking a diplomatic crisis.

"All of the measures they have taken have the intention of provoking a rupture in these ties, these minimum links, in diplomatic relations," Castro told reporters Wednesday night as he stood outside the Interests Section.

In response, Cuban workers wielding jackhammers and other equipment have begun erecting a huge structure that observers believe is likely to block the sign that transmits messages from figures ranging from Martin Luther King to Abraham Lincoln to President Bush.

Wayne Smith, the former top U.S. diplomat in Cuba during the administration of President Jimmy Carter, said the sign would only further aggravate relations between Cuba and the United States.

"Instead of tackling real issues they are doing this," said Smith. "It's theater of the absurd."

On Tuesday, Castro led a huge government-organized march in front of the Interests Section to protest the ticker and other U.S. actions aimed at Cuba.

U.S. officials turned the ticker on just as Castro was beginning to address the crowd.

"How brave the cockroaches are," Castro said. "It seems that Little Bush must have sent the order."

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