The Bare Flagpoles of Havana
Before Obama restored ties to Cuba, he ended an inventive U.S. effort to
By DAVID FEITH
Aug. 17, 2015 7:05 p.m. ET
There was an odd sight over John Kerry’s shoulder as he stood in the
Havana sun Friday. At a flagpole in front of him, U.S. Marines were
raising the Stars and Stripes to mark the return of a U.S. embassy to
Cuba after 54 years. Choreographed and solemn, that was the scene that
U.S. and Cuban leaders wanted the world to see.
Behind Secretary of State Kerry, though, was a peculiar sea of other
flagpoles, tall and empty, steel spires rising from nowhere. These were
visible in photographs splashed across world news but little noted.
Which is unfortunate. Because those steel poles are a reminder of an
unusually creative and bold chapter in recent U.S. diplomacy—and one the
Obama administration ended.
In 2006 the U.S. faced a challenge. For nearly 30 years it had been
operating a quasi-embassy in Havana, known as an Interests Section, from
the same building that housed the U.S. Embassy before the 1961 break in
formal diplomatic ties. The Bush administration wanted to support
liberalization by aiding the victims of the Castro regime, including
labor activists and journalists and those punished for trying to
worship, work or travel freely. But U.S. officials were largely confined
to the Interests Section, barred from freely meeting the public or
communicating through the state-controlled media.
So American diplomats decided to make clever use of one of the few
resources they had: their building. Across 25 windows near the top of
the seven-story structure, they created a giant electronic billboard.
With 5-foot-tall red letters, they could broadcast messages to the Cuban
public from prime real estate along central Havana’s busy Malecón esplanade.
The sign went live on Martin Luther King Day with translated excerpts
from the “I Have a Dream” speech, resonant in Cuba with its messages of
civil rights and of racial equality—the island’s Afro-Cuban majority
often suffers the brunt of the regime’s cruelty. “No man is good enough
to govern another man without his consent,” the billboard also declared,
quoting Abraham Lincoln.
Its messages on other occasions: “In a free country you don’t need
permission to leave. Is Cuba a free country?” and, from the Universal
Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to leave any
country, including his own, and to return to his country.”
Some of the offerings were more acid. “How sad that all the people who
would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair,”
the sign blared, quoting comedian George Burns. Then there was the
wisdom of rocker (and anti-Soviet icon) Frank Zappa, who quipped that
“Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff.”
The electronic ticker also offered news about Cuban baseball stars who
defected to the U.S. major leagues and became millionaires. And it noted
that Forbes magazine had named humble Communist Fidel Castro the world’s
seventh-richest head of state, estimating his personal wealth at $900
Months after the billboard came to life, Mr. Castro designed a
countermeasure. Across from the U.S. Interests Section, in a plaza
called Anti-Imperialist Park, he planted nearly 150 large black flags to
obscure from most angles the view of America’s messages.
U.S. diplomats responded, via the ticker: “Who fears the billboard? Why
block it?” The answers were obvious. As the Soviet dissident
playwright-turned-statesman Václav Havel wrote, the essential truth
about tyrannies is their fragility. Tyrants rely on lies, and they fear
that any irruption of truth—the circulation of samizdat literature, or
even a lone greengrocer refusing to show fealty to the state—could start
to unravel the whole fabric of government control.
Hence Mr. Castro’s decades of brutal information suppression and his
jitters over a single Havana billboard beyond his grasp. Yet he is
nothing if not a survivor, and visitors to Havana reported that his
strategically placed flags mostly did the trick in keeping the U.S.
ticker out of view. Still it served as a quiet beacon of liberal
solidarity in an otherwise benighted land.
Until it didn’t. In June 2009 the Obama administration shut the ticker
off, one of the first in a series of U.S. and Cuban gestures leading to
last year’s restoration of diplomatic relations and now the
transformation of the U.S. Interests Section back into a formal embassy.
After the billboard faded to black, the Castro regime took down its
oversize flags, leaving behind the bare steel flagpoles that loomed over
Absent from that ceremony, meanwhile, were any voices of Cuban
liberalism. Blogger Yoani Sanchez, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, “Ladies in
White” protest leader Berta Soler: No such dissidents were invited, a
sadly fitting reflection of the Obama administration policy by which the
Castro regime gains international prestige and hard currency without
offering compromises on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly or other
basic human rights.
Mr. Feith is a Journal editorial writer based in Hong Kong.
Source: The Bare Flagpoles of Havana – WSJ –