U.S. takes down provocative billboard in Havana

Officials at the U.S. diplomatic outpost in Havana have quietly taken down an electronic sign that infuriated the government, the latest evidence of a partial thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations.

Officials confirmed that last month they dismantled the 5-foot-tall sign, which for the last three years displayed messages critical of Cuban authorities. In return, the Cuban government has taken down some nearby billboards condemning the United States.

“These dueling billboards, if you will, were not serving the interests of promoting a more productive relationship,” Ian Kelly, a State Department spokesman, told reporters.

The U.S. sign was put up in 2006 at a time when a Cuban government crackdown had swept dozens of dissidents into jail.


Its messages included a quotation from Abraham Lincoln: “No man is good enough to govern another man without that other’s consent.” The Cuban signs included pictures of U.S. troops mistreating Iraqi prisoners, a practice it compared to Nazi tactics.

“A kind of propaganda war had been gathering steam between the U.S. and Cuba over several years,” said Daniel Erikson of the Inter-American Dialogue think tank in Washington. The sign, he said, “was the piece de resistance.” The Obama administration has promised to try to improve relations, and the two countries have since taken several small steps in that direction.

The Obama administration has eased some travel and financial restrictions on Cuban Americans. And the two countries recently resumed talks on control of migration that were broken off during the Bush administration.

U.S. officials have said that other steps are possible, but only if the Cuban government makes moves toward liberalization, such as freeing political prisoners or increasing freedoms on the island.


Kelly, the State Department spokesman, said the administration had been trying to free up the exchange of information between the countries by, for example, permitting U.S. telecommunications firms to set up links to the island. The sign did not fit in with this new approach, he said. Moreover, the messages could barely be seen by passersby because of obstructions placed in front of it.

Officials at the Cuban interests section in Washington did not respond to a request for comment.