The Havana billboard: It's a good start
Considering the Bush administration's poor handling of Latin American affairs in recent years, and its rusty Cuba policy in particular, U.S. officials deserve credit for an unusually imaginative idea -- counterattacking Cuban dictator Fidel Castro with humor.
Last week, when the Castro regime shepherded nearly one million government employees, workers and students to a ''March of the People'' against Uncle Sam in front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the U.S. diplomatic mission responded by displaying an electronic billboard reading, ``To those who wanted to be here, we respect your protest. To those who didn't want to be here, we're sorry for the inconvenience.''
The electronic billboard, a five-foot-tall sign that stretches across the U.S. Interests Section building, had been inaugurated Jan. 16, on the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Since then, it has been lit several times, broadcasting news headlines from international wire agencies -- including stories critical of U.S. policies, in an effort to show that Americans can read bad news about their government -- and quotes from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, or world figures such as Winston Churchill, Indira Gandhi and Lech Walesa.
U.S. officials say the billboard is perfectly legal under international law, whereby diplomatic missions' grounds are considered foreign territory. To make it even safer from a legal point of view, the electronic billboard was placed inside the building, behind a top floor's glass windows, rather than on the outside grounds.
''It's a way of breaking the dictatorship's information blockade,'' said Caleb McCarry, the top U.S. State Department official in charge of Cuban affairs.
Predictably, Castro exploded in anger, calling it a ''provocation.'' Late last week, the Cuban regime was hurriedly building a big structure in front of the U.S. Interests Section, presumably to block the billboard from people's view.
A statement by the U.S. Interests Section said, ''The regime's reaction is not surprising: building walls to isolate Cubans from the rest of the world is what this regime does best.'' Senior U.S. officials tell me there are no plans to interrupt the billboard's news ticker, nor its messages.
Claudio Grossman, dean of American University's Washington School of Law and an expert on freedom of expression issues, says the billboard is a good idea.
''If Cuba doesn't like it, they should put up a similar billboard at their diplomatic mission in Washington,'' Grossman said. ``Anything that contributes to the free discussion of ideas should be welcome by the human rights community.''
José Miguel Vivanco, a top official of Human Rights Watch, the advocacy group that last week put out a devastating report accusing the Bush administration of deliberately using torture as part of its counterterrorism strategy, told me that ``it's a creative, legitimate and valid option that deserves applause.''
Vivanco added, ``I wish the U.S. government would use the same creativity to reach an international consensus to seek policies that would be more effective in putting pressure on the Cuban regime.''
WHY STOP NOW?
My conclusion: I agree. A regime that bans independent newspapers, doesn't allow anybody who criticizes the government to appear on radio or TV and sentences peaceful opponents to 25 years in prison for crimes such as possessing a typewriter should be exposed around the world for freaking out about one billboard.
Why don't European and Latin American democracies follow suit, and begin broadcasting their respective countries' evening news from billboards atop their embassies in Havana?
Governments could perfectly well do this without giving up their criticism of the U.S. commercial embargo on Cuba. (And left-of-center democracies would help themselves a lot, because it seems the international left is gradually abandoning the cause of universal human rights, and ceding it to the right.)
And why doesn't the Bush administration use the same creativity to open up -- rather than block -- travel by Americans to Havana, as a way to help spread new ideas on the island? Or put Castro even more on the spot by offering to partially lift U.S. economic sanctions if Castro allowed publication of one independent newspaper?
The billboard is a great idea. Now, the Bush administration should turn that creativity into finding common ground with other democracies around the world, as a way to help the Cuban people recover their most basic civil and human rights.
MiamiHerald.com | 01/29/2006 | The Havana billboard: It's a good start