- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 15, 2004

HAVANA — U.S. diplomats refused to take down a Christmas display outside their offices yesterday, ignoring a demand by Cuba to remove the decorations, which include a reference to dissidents jailed by Fidel Castro’s government.

The display includes a Santa Claus, candy canes and white lights wrapped around palm trees. But the element that most irked the Cuban authorities was a sign that reads “75” — a reference to 75 Cuban dissidents jailed last year, said James Cason, chief of the U.S. Interests Section.

Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon yesterday described the sign as “rubbish” and told reporters that Mr. Cason seems “desperate to create problems.”

Cuba had warned the U.S. Interests Section in Havana to remove the decorations or face unspecified consequences, but Mr. Alarcon did not say what the consequences would be. No other officials from Mr. Castro’s administration have commented on the spat.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher defended the decorations and said there are no plans to remove them until after the holidays.

The “75” sign “shows our solidarity with Cubans who struggle for democracy and freedom, when we think it’s appropriate, at the holiday season, to remember … these people who are missing because of political repression,” Mr. Boucher said.

A reporter who drove past the Interests Section yesterday saw the sign and the other decorations still displayed along Havana’s coastal Malecon highway. There were no onlookers and little traffic because of a tidal surge that threatened the area with flooding.

“Our intent, in the spirit of Christmas, was to call attention to the plight of these 75,” Mr. Cason told reporters. “We’re prepared to pay whatever price for the things we believe in.”

Cuban Foreign Ministry officials insisted in meetings Saturday and Tuesday that the decorations be removed, Mr. Cason said.

“They could expel us, they could continue to hinder our activities,” Mr. Cason said. “We don’t know what they’re going to do.”

Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat who is in Havana for trade talks between American agribusinesses and the Cuban government, declined to comment specifically on the Christmas decorations.

Mr. Baucus, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said instead: “I just believe that we have a great future ahead of us, both the United States and Cuba, if we just stay on a positive course, and work to build relationships.”

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