martedì, giugno 20, 2006

Electronic scroll a sign of discord

Electronic scroll a sign of discord

Tone of U.S.-Cuba ties turns nastier

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By Ian Katz
Havana Bureau

June 16, 2006

HAVANA · The big news, if you were standing in front of the U.S. Interests Section building on Wednesday night, was that Chicago White Sox pitcher Jose Contreras won his 15th consecutive game.

An electronic sign, scrolling in 5-foot-high red letters across the façade of the sixth floor, repeated a few news items from the overtly political to the mundane:

An Afghan delegation declared conditions at the U.S. detention center in Guantanamo Bay humane. Tropical Storm Alberto blew through Florida. The European Union deplored the "deterioration" of human rights in Cuba.

Relations between the United States and Cuba, always bitter, have taken on a nastier tone in recent months. The only thing the two sides agree on is that the current spat stems from the electronic sign, which debuted in January.

The Interests Section said Monday that Cuba had cut off its electricity a week earlier, forcing it to use generator power. The outage was part of what the Interests Section claims is a flurry of recent harassment, including the sporadic stoppage of water service and Cuba's refusal to let the diplomatic mission import vehicles or hire Cuban employees.

Electricity was restored on Tuesday, the same day Cuba's official newspaper, Granma, published a front-page editorial denying that the power outage was deliberate and accusing the Interests Section of lying.

Granma attributed the outage to problems with the local electricity grid and the uneven water service to a drought and supply difficulties. "Never will our Revolution assault or violate a diplomatic mission. It never has and it never will," the newspaper said.

The return of electricity to the mission might have signaled a truce. "I'm tending to write this one off to a certain irrationality on both sides," said Wayne Smith, director of the Cuba program at the Center for International Policy in Washington and former head of the Interests Section. "Relations will not improve, but maybe they won't get any worse."

The electronic sign, which scrolls in Spanish, makes not-so-subtle references to democracy in other lands. But pitching sensation Contreras, who defected from Cuba in 2002 and now makes $9.5 million a year, appears most frequently. "The regime doesn't put up Major League Baseball news and Cubans crave it, so we put it up, especially when it's about Cuban-American players," Interests Section spokesman Drew Blakeney said.

The sign was installed, he said, "to disseminate free, uncensored information and opinion not usually available to Cubans." It's not the first time the Interests Section has used a display to make a point. In 2004, it put up a Christmas display that included a brightly lit 75, referring to the number of Cuban government opponents who had been jailed the previous year.

After the electronic sign went up, Cuban President Fidel Castro had 150 flags installed directly in front of the building. Even without the flags, the sign isn't in an ideal place. It faces a street with more vehicle traffic than pedestrians, and drivers don't have time to read the scroll.

Staff Researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.

Ian Katz can be reached at

Electronic scroll a sign of discord