Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Obama administration has caved to demands from Fidel and Raul Castro’s government to shut down a U.S.-sponsored electronic billboard in Havana. This is a symbolic step backward in America’s mission to promote freedom.

In January 2006, American diplomats who work in the U.S. Interests Section, which operates out of the fifth floor of the Swiss Embassy, installed a Times Square-style news ticker to bring the Cuban people the kinds of information and ideas their totalitarian government would never allow them to see otherwise. Twenty-five 5-foot-high panels broadcast such controversial information as quotations from Martin Luther King and key passages from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The billboard also carried news and baseball scores.

The Cuban government responded with a dust-up worthy of the Cold War, denouncing the ticker as a propaganda weapon. The Havana regime forced a million people to march past it in protest. Anti-U.S. billboards were placed nearby, and 138 100-foot-tall flagpoles were erected in front of the ticker in something the communists called Anti-Imperialism Park. Havana also cut off all contact with the American Interests Section until the ticker was removed.

The billboard had its technical problems — inability to punctuate correctly in Spanish, for example — but it was a clever means of broadcasting news in one of the few remaining communist dictatorships on earth. The ticker touched a nerve. Those who claim it was ineffective and a waste of money should judge it against the Cuban government’s apoplectic response.

In the spirit of the new openness between Washington and Havana, the Obama administration has decided to accommodate the Castros’ demands and shutter the ticker. This is a shame. True, the electronic billboard was not going to bring down the communist regime, but its message was as much symbolic as substantive. It said the United States was upholding its historic mission of promoting openness in closed societies and bringing truth to countries where governments rule by lies.

Just as the ticker was a symbolic light in the sky while it was operating, the darkened windows of the U.S. Interests Section communicate a new message. To the Cuban people and also those in Iran, North Korea, Syria and other countries where people yearn to be free: Look elsewhere. You are on your own.

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