By Marc Frank in Havana | Reuters
The US has turned off a Times Square-style news ticker - a source of irritation for the Castro government - at its diplomatic mission in Havana that since 2006 streamed propaganda and news into the night, western diplomatic sources said.
The measure is the latest in a series of initiatives by the Obama administration as it seeks to engage Cuba and to end 50 years of enmity viewed in Latin America and the Caribbean as a relic of the cold war.
“It is a beginning - and it is encouraging. It has to do with the atmosphere. It suggests that we are moving toward a more normal diplomatic relationship,” said Wayne Smith, who opened the US mission’s Interests Section under President Jimmy Carter.
The crimson ticker - five feet high and running through 25 windows of the Swiss embassy building that hosts the US mission on Havana’s sea-side drive - began to stream messages on January 16 three and a half years ago, to mark Martin Luther King Jr’s birthday at the height of tension with the Bush administration.
“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up,” was the ticker’s first message.
Then president Fidel Castro dug up the mission’s parking lot a few feet from the front door in response, to replace it with 138 flag polls reaching 100ft in the air to conceal the ticker. Mr Castro also marched a million people by in protest and erected billboards around the building depicting the Bush administration as linked to anti-Castro terrorists. All contact between Havana-based US diplomats and the Cuban Foreign Ministry was declared at an end until the ticker ticked no more.
It is believed the ticker was turned off late last month.
“That they turned off the ticker is important - and that nobody has noticed is significant, too,” a western diplomat said.
“The Cubans could have howled victory - but [they] said nothing, indicating they are serious about improving relations.”
The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some local contact may have resumed already. Easing of travel restrictions for US and Cuban diplomats in each other’s capitals was expected soon. US diplomats stationed in Havana and Cubans in Washington are currently restricted to a 25-mile radius from the Interests Sections.
It appears the standoff about the US mission - an attraction for tourists and a symbol of relations with the Bush administration - is winding down. The Cuban government took the billboards down soon after Barack Obama took office. There have been no marches past the building since Raul Castro took over from his ailing brother Fidel in February last year.
The US broke off relations with Cuba in 1961 and declared a trade embargo in 1962. Interests Sections were established in Washington and Havana in 1977. The US is the only country in the western hemisphere that does not have normal relations with Cuba.
The Obama administration has lifted restrictions on Cuban American travel to the Communist-run Caribbean island and the sending of remittances. Immigration talks, called off by the Bush administration, resumed this month. Cuba has expressed interest in broadening discussions to include drug trafficking, human smuggling and disaster preparedness.
“We’re taking it step-by- step; seeing if, as we change some of the old approaches that we’ve been taking, we are seeing some movement on the Cuban government side,’’ Mr Obama told reporters.
Mr Smith was in Havana last week to lead a delegation on disaster co-operation, particularly after hurricanes. Among its members were Retired Lieutenant General Russel Honore, former commander of the Joint Task Force Katrina, and Stewart Simonson, former assistant secretary for emergency preparedness of the Department of Health and Human Services from 2004 to 2006.
General Honore, who advocates normal relations, said the delegation was well-received: “Everyone should stop looking in the rear view mirror. A failed state so near to home is not in our interest.”