July 27th, 2009
05:23 PM ET

An end to the battle of the billboards

[cnn-photo-caption image="http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/WORLD/americas/07/26/cubal.tough.times/art.rcastro.gi.jpg" caption="President Raul Castro speaks to a crowd yesterday on the 56th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. He has taken down anti-U.S. billboards."]

Elise Labott
CNN State Department Producer

It was the US government's version of the ticker in New York's Times Square, blasting Havana's main seaside strip with anti-Cuba propaganda in five-foot high crimson letters. It symbolized the tit-for-tat diplomatic row between Washington and Havana.

But the ticker at the top of the US interests section in Cuba has gone blank, yet another signal the past half century of animosity between the two countries is easing

State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly said the ticker was turned off in June because it was not considered an "effective" as a means of delivering information to the Cuban people.

The scrolling electronic sign, fitted across 25 windows of the US interest section, ran quotes from American heroes like Martin Luther King's, "I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up" and Abraham Lincoln's, "No man is good enough to govern another man without that other's consent."

It also streamed news and political messages that blamed Cuba's everyday problems on the communist regime led by Fidel Castro and the island's socialist economy. A common complaint of the island's transportation woes was fueled by jabs such as, "Some go around in Mercedes, some in Ladas, but the system forces almost everyone to hitch rides."

The sign, erected in 2006 by the Bush administration and billed as a way to circumvent censorship and offer hope and freedom to Cubans oppressed by a brutal regime, fueled a propaganda war with Fidel Castro, who referred to the US interest section as "the headquarters of the counterrevolution."

Calling the ticker an assault on Cuba's sovereignty by an imperialist bully, an infuriated Fidel Castro marched a million Cubans past the interest section in protest, dug up the US mission's parking lot and blocked the ticker by erecting anti-US billboards and 138 huge black flags to commemorate victims of so-called US aggression. He promised there would be no contact between US-based diplomats in Havana and Cuba's foreign ministry until the sign came down.

Raul Castro, Fidel's brother who now rules Cuba, took down the anti-U.S. billboards earlier this year as ties between the two countries continue to improve. In April President Obama lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to the island and sending remittances to family members there. And earlier this month US and Cuban diplomats held their first talks since 2003 on Cuban migration to the United States.

Kelly acknowledged most Cubans couldn't even read the ticker because of the counter-propaganda erected by the Cubans. The "dueling billboards," Kelly said, was not promoting a productive US-Cuba relationship.

Kelly said measures also announced by President Obama in April to allow US cell phone networks and other telecommunication technology to operate on the island would do more allow the free flow of information to the Cuban people.

Filed under: Cuba • Elise Labott
soundoff (One Response)
  1. Annie Kate

    Its good that we are finally taking steps to be Cuba's good neighbor rather than the overbearing one we have been ever since I remember. Considering where they are located Cuba is better as an ally than an enemy. I hope things continue to improve between our two countries.

    July 27, 2009 at 5:47 pm |