Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Havana billboard: It's a good start

Posted on Sun, Jan. 29, 2006
The Oppenheimer Report
The Havana billboard: It's a good start
Andres Oppenheimer

Considering the Bush administration's poor handling of Latin American
affairs in recent years, and its rusty Cuba policy in particular, U.S.
officials deserve credit for an unusually imaginative idea --
counterattacking Cuban dictator Fidel Castro with humor.

Last week, when the Castro regime shepherded nearly one million
government employees, workers and students to a ''March of the People''
against Uncle Sam in front of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, the
U.S. diplomatic mission responded by displaying an electronic billboard
reading, ``To those who wanted to be here, we respect your protest. To
those who didn't want to be here, we're sorry for the inconvenience.''

The electronic billboard, a five-foot-tall sign that stretches across
the U.S. Interests Section building, had been inaugurated Jan. 16, on
the occasion of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Since then, it has been lit
several times, broadcasting news headlines from international wire
agencies -- including stories critical of U.S. policies, in an effort to
show that Americans can read bad news about their government -- and
quotes from the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, or world
figures such as Winston Churchill, Indira Gandhi and Lech Walesa.

U.S. officials say the billboard is perfectly legal under international
law, whereby diplomatic missions' grounds are considered foreign
territory. To make it even safer from a legal point of view, the
electronic billboard was placed inside the building, behind a top
floor's glass windows, rather than on the outside grounds.

''It's a way of breaking the dictatorship's information blockade,'' said
Caleb McCarry, the top U.S. State Department official in charge of Cuban


Predictably, Castro exploded in anger, calling it a ''provocation.''
Late last week, the Cuban regime was hurriedly building a big structure
in front of the U.S. Interests Section, presumably to block the
billboard from people's view.

A statement by the U.S. Interests Section said, ''The regime's reaction
is not surprising: building walls to isolate Cubans from the rest of the
world is what this regime does best.'' Senior U.S. officials tell me
there are no plans to interrupt the billboard's news ticker, nor its

Claudio Grossman, dean of American University's Washington School of Law
and an expert on freedom of expression issues, says the billboard is a
good idea.

''If Cuba doesn't like it, they should put up a similar billboard at
their diplomatic mission in Washington,'' Grossman said. ``Anything that
contributes to the free discussion of ideas should be welcome by the
human rights community.''

José Miguel Vivanco, a top official of Human Rights Watch, the advocacy
group that last week put out a devastating report accusing the Bush
administration of deliberately using torture as part of its
counterterrorism strategy, told me that ``it's a creative, legitimate
and valid option that deserves applause.''

Vivanco added, ``I wish the U.S. government would use the same
creativity to reach an international consensus to seek policies that
would be more effective in putting pressure on the Cuban regime.''


My conclusion: I agree. A regime that bans independent newspapers,
doesn't allow anybody who criticizes the government to appear on radio
or TV and sentences peaceful opponents to 25 years in prison for crimes
such as possessing a typewriter should be exposed around the world for
freaking out about one billboard.

Why don't European and Latin American democracies follow suit, and begin
broadcasting their respective countries' evening news from billboards
atop their embassies in Havana?

Governments could perfectly well do this without giving up their
criticism of the U.S. commercial embargo on Cuba. (And left-of-center
democracies would help themselves a lot, because it seems the
international left is gradually abandoning the cause of universal human
rights, and ceding it to the right.)

And why doesn't the Bush administration use the same creativity to open
up -- rather than block -- travel by Americans to Havana, as a way to
help spread new ideas on the island? Or put Castro even more on the spot
by offering to partially lift U.S. economic sanctions if Castro allowed
publication of one independent newspaper?

The billboard is a great idea. Now, the Bush administration should turn
that creativity into finding common ground with other democracies around
the world, as a way to help the Cuban people recover their most basic
civil and human rights.

No comments: