US pulls the plug on ticker in Cuba
Campaign News | Monday, 27 July 2009
by Rory Carroll, Latin America correspondent for the Guardian
It was smuggled through the US diplomatic pouch, secretly installed across the facade of a building overlooking Havana and given a very specific mission: to annoy Fidel Castro.
The scrolling electronic sign, a low-tech version of New York's Times Square ticker, escalated the US's propaganda war with Cuba's leader three years ago by flashing human rights messages in five-foot high crimson letters. But history, or more specifically Barack Obama, appears to have pulled the plug on the billboard which flitted across 25 windows of the US interests section in Havana. The screen has gone blank - the latest indication that half a century of enmity may be winding down.
The ticker, erected by the Bush administration in January 2006, infuriated Castro and provoked tit-for-tat diplomatic jousting which further strained relations.
"It was basically a contest of which side could annoy the other the most," said Dan Erikson, author The Cuba Wars and an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue thinktank. "The US described [the sign] as a way to convey information to the Cuban people but the real purpose was to irritate the Cuban government."
It ran quotes from Martin Luther King ("I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up") and Abraham Lincoln ("No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent") as well as the likes of Lech Walesa.
It also blamed the island's transport crisis and material privations on the communist authorities: "Some go around in Mercedes, some in Ladas, but the system forces almost everyone to hitch rides." Bush officials said the ticker was a way to circumvent censorship and convey hope and liberty to a tropical gulag.
Castro said it was another assault on Cuba's sovereignty by a hypocritical imperialist bully. Soon after it appeared he marched a million people past in protest, dug up the US mission's car park and erected anti-US billboards and 138 huge black flags to commemorate "victims of US aggression" - and block the ticker.
The revolutionary leader said there would be no contact between Havana-based US diplomats and Cuba's foreign ministry until the sign came down. Since then he has fallen ill and been succeeded as president by his brother, Raul, and Bush has been replaced by a Democrat who has spoken of a new start with the Caribbean island 90 miles off Florida.
After Obama's election the Cuban government expressed a desire to normalise relations and took down its billboards around the US mission, though the flags remained. In recent months the White House lifted restrictions on remittances and travel for Cuban-Americans - a slight easing of the Kennedy-era economic embargo - and resumed talks with Havana over migration and disaster preparedness. The ticker disappeared several weeks ago but was reported only today. US diplomats told visitors there were "technical difficulties" and that there were no plans to switch it back soon, according to Reuters.
There is speculation that US and Cuban officials in Havana have resumed contact. The US state department and Cuban foreign ministry did not immediately respond to requests seeking comment.
The ticker made little visible impact on Cubans but became a tourist attraction. Cumbersome technology, however, diminished its impact. The sign was slow-moving, difficult to read and lacked Spanish accents and tildes.
For instance "año", which means year, appeared as "ano", which means anus.