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Havana's 148 Flags Prove Mightier Than the Billboard

But the scale of the latest face-off dwarfs past propaganda clashes. The U.S. billboard has five-foot-tall letters, which are displayed on electronic screens inside the building's windows, and scrolls messages for hours at a time. The Cuban counteroffensive is massive, with each huge black flag featuring a white star commemorating what Castro's government calls victims of nearly a century and a half of uprisings against outside forces, dating to battles against Spanish colonialists and spanning his 47-year rule.

In an interview, Cuban Senate President Ricardo Alarcon -- considered by many Cuba experts to be the nation's third-most powerful figure behind Fidel Castro and his brother, Raul Castro -- called the U.S. billboard "absurd."

"These messages are undoubtedly provocations," Alarcon said. "This doesn't have anything to do with diplomacy."

The billboard -- which displays a mix of historical quotes, broadsides against Cuban policies and news and sports reports -- is unique in U.S. diplomacy, Watnik said. But "we'd like to see other embassies" install similar message boards, he said.

The messages in Havana are diverse. There is cheeky commentary: zany musician Frank Zappa opining that "communism doesn't work because people like to own stuff." There are biting observations, such as George Orwell's satirical take on communism from "Animal Farm": "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." And there are lengthy document dumps, such as the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, with lines such as "Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country."

Last week, the billboard scrolled the news that Jose Contreras, a Cuban baseball star who defected to the United States in 2002, had won his 13th consecutive game for the world champion Chicago White Sox.

But that was just a warm-up.

The most provocative item came a few messages later: Forbes magazine, the billboard reported, had just named Fidel Castro the world's seventh-wealthiest head of state, with a fortune estimated at $900 million. Five Cubans who had been wandering past stopped dead. Castro, they all know, maintains that he has no personal wealth.

A tall, slender man called out, "Look, look!" For a moment, they were silent, rapt. Then they started to laugh. Not just chuckle, but laugh out loud.

"No way," one man said.

"I don't believe it," another said. "They're lying."

"Wait a second," a third said. "This is interesting."

Others gathered around, joining the conversation. The little group -- all Cubans who did not want their names revealed -- swelled to a dozen. But the chatting was cut short.

A Cuban police officer, a baby-faced 21-year-old, marched up the sidewalk.

"Get back," he said. "Get back."

Everyone obliged without complaint, edging back slowly, their eyes still directed at the billboard. The officer kept waving and waving until he seemed satisfied. The crowd was now behind Fidel's flags.

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