Billboard Raises Hackles In Havana

Demonstrators angered by a huge news ticker-style electronic billboard on the U.S. Interests Section diplomatic office in Havana marched by the building in protest on Feb. 7, 2006, carrying signs of people they say died in anti-Cuban violence.
By CBS News Producer Portia Siegelbaum in Havana.

As Washington tries to undermine Cuban President Fidel Castro, Havana is branding the United States a source of terrorism and suffering for the communist island.

American diplomats looking out the windows of the U.S. Interests Section Tuesday faced a vigil by workers and students wearing black T-shirts holding up photos of Cubans they say were killed in anti-Castro violence over the past four decades.

The 24-hour vigil by pro-government forces began Monday evening right after a mourning field of 138 black banners - each with a single white star - was raised in front of the American mission. The banners partially block an electronic news ticker running pro-democracy and anti-government messages in bright crimson letters along the building's fifth floor.

Although the vigil ended Tuesday night, the Cuban Communist Party daily, Granma, says the banners will remain up indefinitely.

Rumors have been rampant ever since construction on the site began two week ago. Some critics suggested Castro was building a wall to prevent Cubans from reading messages such as "The only thing we want to provoke with our sign is the free flow of ideas and voices", which streamed by as the flag-raising ceremony took place. Other messages have clearly been intended to insult the government. For example, one was an old George Burns joke saying: the people best suited to running the country are those currently driving taxis and cutting hair.

In comments to the press, USINT chief, Michael Parmly insists that he is just continuing to apply the Bush Administration's Cuba policy, which involves breaking through government censorship. However, in a speech earlier this month Castro called the electronic sign a "gross provocation aimed at rupturing fragile relations".

"A parallel action would be for the Cuban Interests Section [in Washington] to display five-foot high photos of President Bush and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, which the White House is withholding from the public," says Philip Brenner, Senior Associate Dean at the American University's School of International Relations.

U.S. embassies in other countries with alleged press censorship, says Brenner, do not "antagonize their hosts with similar signs. It is inconsistent with the behavior of a diplomatic mission to be undiplomatic."

Although clearly annoyed, Havana has not made the electronic sign put up by the Americans the focus of its street protests. Instead a march by hundreds of thousands of government supporters January 24th spotlighted the presence in the U.S. of Cuban born Luis Posada Carriles, accused of a string of bombings, including the 1976 mid-air explosion of a Cuban airliner killing all 73 on board. Castro is charging the Bush Administration of protecting Posada, who is in immigration detention for illegally entering the United States.

The banners that went up Monday "represent the nation's mourning for over 3,400 Cubans killed by U.S.-sponsored violence since the 1959 revolution," declared Carlos Alberto Cremata, whose father was the co-pilot of the Cubana plane.