The Billboard Wars

By Alfredo Prieto

“It’s a battle of words”
Pink Floyd.

Back center is the US Interests Section with the electronic ticker; see flag pole monument to the right. Photo: Caridad
Back center is the US Interests Section with the electronic ticker; see flag pole monument to the right. Photo: Caridad

In December 2004, James Cason, then the head of the U.S. Interests Section (USIS) in Havana, decided to put a big number 75 in the building’s front yard, along with Christmas lights and ornaments.

The number alluded to the trial and imprisonment of 75 opponents of the government in 2003. The Cuban side responded to the gesture with an equal dose of animosity, as it was seen as interfering with the island’s domestic affairs and contrary to the goodwill that should characterize diplomatic relations between two nations.

After going through appropriate channels and unsuccessfully requesting that the big number 75 be removed, the Cuban side, as expected, picked up the gauntlet and installed several billboards depicting U.S. torture of prisoners in Iraqi prisons, which had been revealed very graphically by the US press itself.  These were accompanied by a huge caricature of Cason poking fun at the official manner of interpreting the question of human rights.

The next step in the escalation went beyond graphic arts into the realm of technology.  In January of 2006 a large electronic billboard with giant scrolling red letters containing “objective information” for the Cuban people was installed on the upper floor of the USIS building, located on the Havana seafront road.  The Cuban side immediately neutralized the move by erecting the “Forest of Flags” – as an annex to the adjacent Jose Marti Anti-Imperialist Plaza, built during the height of the Elian Gonzalez case.  The monument consists of over a hundred black flags flying atop huge masts, which block the ticker from view.

Thus, due to the obstinate hard-line of the US State Department and the activism of its officials, the USIS lost its spacious parking lot while the Cubans sacrificed significant amounts of cement and other building materials needed to repair their homes.  In the long run, people never really discovered what the messages said, but deep down these weren’t of great interest to them anyway, since they have other information sources at their disposal without having to leave their own neighborhoods.

The incident was like a miniature version of Cuba’s blocking of TV and Radio Marti, possible thanks to technology and the proven professionalism of local technicians.

These actions, plus others produced by that peculiar atmosphere, made up what at the time was called “the billboard war”, a conflagration started by the Bush administration and just ended by Obama.

“We believe that the electronic ticker was really not effective as a means of delivering information to the Cuban people”, said Ian Kelly, a State Department spokesman.  The gesture could be taken as an act of goodwill if it weren’t for the fact that they continue claiming the right to decide what information Cubans should have access to. As always, it has to do with the classic problem of hegemonic assumptions.

Anyway, the action in itself is a just drop of flame retardant on relations dominated by fire and confrontation.  It comes at a time when both governments have agreed to reinstate face-to-face migration talks, which had been unilaterally suspended by the Bush administration.  However, Washington’s overall general policy towards Cuba remains unchanged under Obama.

“We just felt that these dueling billboards were not serving the interests of promoting a more productive relationship,” Kelly emphasized, only to be “countered” by the persistent Cuban-American right that, as expected, reacted strongly against the announcement with a time worn discourse further demonstrating that they do not have their finger on the pulse of today’s Cuba.

Classic logic would sustain that one way of advancing in the bilateral talks is to gain ground through negotiations on concrete and immediate issues of mutual interest – immigration policy is one of them; then, using the resulting trust as a starting point, you can later take on and resolve the “hard agenda.”

We have gone down this road before and success has slipped through our fingers for various reasons.  But if we accept that change is, or should be, the hallmark of this US administration, perhaps it is fitting to ask: how far will we go?  But I confess that I find myself among the skeptics. What about you?

Alfredo Prieto

Alfredo Prieto: I was born in Havana, a fact that’s not so common around here these days. Most of my family emigrated a long time ago to the United States, something that motivated me to study that country a little to try and understand it. I learned some English, and later I improved a bit more through direct contact with US citizens in their homes and above all in their universities. Later I found out that this was called “sleeping with the enemy”, but I confess that I never saw one in front of me. I’ve had many invitations, but as of six years ago I can’t go back because they changed the rules of the game. I’ve been the editor of the magazines, Cuadernos de Nuestra América, Temas and Caminos. I now work at the publishing house of the Cuban Writers and Artists Association (UNEAC) and I’m writing another book. Like my aunt, I am a declared fan of strawberry cheesecakes… and of Stevie Nicks, Fleetwood Mac’s ex. If any of you know her, please give her a flower for me.