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Cuban Christmas Crisis

CBS News Reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

Oh, how the Bush administration likes to taunt Fidel Castro's regime.

How, one might ask, could Christmas decorations and the number 75 cause a diplomatic brouhaha and tit-for-tat exchanges between Washington and Havana? It's such a simple seasonal story, really.

For some years, senior American diplomats in Havana have been putting up Christmas displays in Havana, outside the U.S. Interest Section. (Washington and Havana do not have embassies in each other's capitals due to decades of strained relations.) The Cuban government has never liked the displays, U.S. officials say, but has tolerated them.

This year, Jim Cason, America's senior diplomat in Havana, took the display a step further. Okay, a giant step further. In amongst the colorful lights and usual Christmas displays featuring Santa and a giant snowman is a sign that has on it the number "75."

The Cubans demanded the sign be removed and threatened retaliation if it was not. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said earlier this week, "We do not plan on taking down our holiday decorations until the holidays are over." Boucher added, "That's the situation and we'll see what happens."

Does this have the makings of a diplomatic incident? You bet. Turns out the number 75 refers to the 75 Cuban prisoners of conscience who were jailed by the Castro regime in 2003. Boucher said of the sign: "It shows our solidarity with Cubans who struggle for democracy and freedom, and we think it's appropriate at the holiday season to remember these people, the people who are missing because of political repression.

"And to put up an entirely festive atmosphere when these people (the 75) are still being held in jail under repressive conditions doesn't necessarily seem the right thing to do either. So it's a combination of remembering people who deserve better and who deserve peace at this season, as well as celebrating the holiday season."

Fidel Castro's government, which has never been at a loss in its frequent political and propaganda duels with Washington, has retaliated and now Boucher, Cason and the Cuba policymakers in the administration can see what has happened.

Across the street from the Americans' Christmas display Cuba has now erected a giant billboard comprised of huge photos of Iraqi prisoners who were abused by American soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, a Nazi swastika and the word "FASCISTAS."

One senior State Department official said, "Cason made his point and the Cubans classically overreacted. That's what they do. It doesn't change the fact that they've imprisoned 75 people who wanted more freedom."

Overreaction or not, the Cubans too have made their point. Thanks to the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, the Bush administration has been reminded, and likely not for the last time, that human rights abuses are a two-way street. Yes, it is true American soldiers are being held responsible for their behavior, and no, Cuban officials are not likely to be held accountable for theirs. But in the propaganda battle that is an ongoing war between Washington and Havana, the Cubans' response should cause Washington to say "ouch."

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