- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Electronic billboard irks Castro

HAVANA — Bulldozers dug up a street in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana yesterday, apparently preparing to block the view of an electronic billboard carrying human rights messages that have angered President Fidel Castro.

Brigades of workers began the task on Tuesday night, hours after Mr. Castro and hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched past the mission to protest the 5-foot-tall ticker that streams messages across the facade of the U.S. Interests Section.

U.S. diplomats said Cuba’s communist authorities were building a concrete wall or screen to obstruct the view of the ticker, which displays messages to the Cuban people, news headlines and quotes from world leaders.

“It is very clear that the Cuban government is building a wall to cut off dialogue,” a spokesman 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.

“We are expanding the anti-imperialist stage,” an official overseeing the work said as an excavator ripped up the asphalt. Another said flag masts would be erected on a new square.

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, Mr. Castro called U.S. diplomats “cockroaches” and accused the Bush administration of seeking a new crisis between the United States and Cuba with “perfidious” provocations.

Organizers said 1.4 million people participated in the six-hour demonstration.

As Mr. 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 Abraham Lincoln, Mohandas K. Gandhi and Lech 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 “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up” from black civil rights leader Martin Luther King’s 1963 speech.

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

The two governments, bitter enemies since Mr. Castro came to power in a 1959 revolution, do not have formal diplomatic relations. Interests offices were opened in each other’s capital during the Carter administration.

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