Cuba puts swastikas on anti-U.S. display

Havana's action is latest in escalating war of signs

December 18, 2004|By Vanessa Bauza | Vanessa Bauza,SOUTH FLORIDA SUN-SENTINEL

HAVANA - First Santa Claus came to town. Now the swastikas are here.

An escalating controversy over a political holiday decoration at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana got nastier yesterday when Fidel Castro's government unfurled large billboards with swastikas, photos of the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal and the words "Made in the USA."

The billboards are Cuba's response to a holiday display on the lawn of the U.S. Interests Section, which includes a tinsel Santa Claus, Frosty the Snowman and a sign with the number 75, referring to the Cuban dissidents imprisoned last year.

The Cubans' billboard appeared overnight on the Malecon, Havana's oceanfront highway, directly facing the U.S. Interests Section offices.

American diplomats refused to take down the decorations this week after Cuban officials warned they would face retaliation.

Yesterday, the busy seaside avenue was dotted with the Cuban billboards, including one with a cartoon depiction of an American soldier pointing a rifle at an Iraqi boy. In it, the boy tells the soldier, "For New Year's, I don't want any more bombs to be dropped on my house and don't torture my Daddy."

An American diplomat in Havana called the Cuban billboards "rabid and hyperbolic" and rejected the comparison between the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and the prisoners of conscience held in Cuba.

"The torture at Abu Ghraib, which President Bush called abominable, has been investigated, reported and discussed fully and openly in the U.S., and those responsible are being prosecuted," the diplomat said. "On the other hand, the Cuban government does not allow a single word of dissent in its media, jails those who dare espouse different ideas and has not allowed the International Red Cross or anyone else to visit Cuban political prisoners since the late 1980s."

The U.S. diplomat repeated that the holiday display, including the "75" sign, will remain in place through the end of the holidays to draw attention to the plight of political prisoners in Cuba.

Wayne Smith, former chief of the U.S. mission in Havana in the Carter and Reagan administrations, said the United States made a mistake.

"I would, of course, like to see all of the 75 released, but this is not the way to do it," said Smith, a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a proponent of normalizing U.S.-Cuba relations. "Putting up the pictures of Abu Ghraib is simply signaling `Two can play at this game, and your hands aren't clean either.'"

In Havana, where the Cold War rages on, the Cuban government routinely assails the Bush administration for what it calls a hypocritical stance on human rights. Havana has frequently criticized the Iraq conflict and has previously printed posters of President Bush with a Hitler mustache and a Nazi uniform.

The new billboards were an effort to turn the tables on the Bush administration's criticisms of Cuba's human rights record.

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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