By Marc Frank | Reuters
Cuba has demanded that the United States take down Christmas lights in front of its mission in Havana’s busy sea-side drive because they include a reference to jailed dissidents, the top U.S. diplomat in the country said on Tuesday.
The Christmas display includes the number 75, in reference to 75 pro-democracy activists imprisoned 20 months ago for long terms. There is an international campaign to free them.
Mission chief James Cason said Cuba’s Foreign Ministry summoned him on Saturday and again on Tuesday and told him to take the display down or there would be consequences.
“As part of our holiday celebrations, we also displayed a ‘75’ symbol as a reminder of those arrested for thinking and speaking independently,” Cason told a news conference.
This year’s Christmas decorations at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana include a lit display of the number 75, seen in the frontyard of the compound on December 7, 2004. REUTERS/Claudia Daut
“The Castro regime is now threatening this diplomatic mission with retaliation.”
Cuba jailed the 75 dissidents in March 2003, charging that they were working with the United States to overthrow the communist-run government.
President Fidel Castro and other officials have repeatedly criticized Cason for holding dissident events in his residence and described the U.S. mission as a “nest of spies.”
Cason has continued to hold events for dissidents and recently asked them to place their wishes for a democratic Cuba and buried it in backyard of his residence.
“It looks like the 75 symbol might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back,” a U.S. diplomat told Reuters, saying Cuban officials had indicated they would take serious action if the lights were not taken down.
“Our position is that all our decorations are up through Christmas,” Cason said.
Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Havana and imposed sanctions on Cuba after Castro’s 1959 revolution, but the two countries maintain interests sections in each others’ capitals.
The Bush administration has stepped up support for Cuban dissidents’ efforts to undermine Castro’s government.
Amnesty International reported in January there were 84 “prisoners of conscience” in Cuba.