By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 13, 2006
HAVANA -- At night, when all Havana seems to be out for an evening stroll, the austere office building that serves as an outpost of U.S. diplomats turns into a billboard.
Letters scroll slowly across the facade, casting a bright red glow. Clumps of restless teenagers plunk their bottles of Havana Club rum on the sidewalk and stare up, their mouths agape. Couples unlace hands and gawk.
Some nights they read the insights of comedian George Burns translated into Spanish: "How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair." Other times, questions are posed: "In a free country you don't need permission to leave the country. Is Cuba a free country?"
On a typical evening, the billboard gets only a small audience -- the few who venture within a block or two of its glowing letters. More people might have seen the messages, but President Fidel Castro countered the U.S. move with one of his own.
In the latest installment of a long-running propaganda war, Castro's government planted a field of flags on tall poles -- 148 in all -- in front of the U.S. building, which holds the offices of the U.S. Interests Section, a diplomatic post one notch below an embassy. The flags block the view of the billboard from its intended audience: the heavy traffic along a seaside highway in central Havana. The flags loom over an outdoor amphitheater already freighted with symbolism: Its name is Anti-Imperialism Park.
Trumping the United States by obscuring its billboard delighted some neighbors.
"That Fidel, he's smart -- very smart," said Luis Garcia, a retiree who lives nearby.
Others barely noticed.
"I don't have time to read signs," said Osman Gonzalez, a state-employed busboy who has a clear view of the Interests Section building from his ground-level apartment. "You've got one kid screaming. You've got to get dinner on the table. Who can bother with this stuff?"
U.S. diplomats acknowledge that the flags have limited their audience, even posting a message that read: "Who fears the billboard? Why block it?" But even if only a few people see the billboard and talk about its messages, something has been accomplished, Eric Watnik, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said in a telephone interview from Washington.
"Castro gets angered by the truth, yet they call their revolution a revolution of ideas. So, we're battling with ideas," Watnik said. "The people of Cuba aren't able to enjoy freedom of expression -- we're bringing them positive messages from the free world."
The saga of the U.S. billboard, which debuted on Martin Luther King Jr. Day with snippets of the civil rights icon's "I Have a Dream" speech, is not without precedent. Two years ago, the U.S. Interests Section in Havana riled Castro's government by putting up a Christmas display with a lighted Santa Claus, a Frosty the Snowman and a huge "75" -- a reference to the number of dissidents jailed in a crackdown the year before. Not to be outdone, Castro put up billboards with swastikas and images of U.S. abuses at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.
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.