How Black Flags and a News Ticker Caused a Diplomatic Dust-up
By MARC FRANK
HAVANA Feb. 11, 2011
Cuba has stopped flying black flags in front of the
U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, the latest step
towards dismantling an in-your-face confrontation
that arose around the building during the George W.
Bush administration and brought always contentious
relations between the two countries to the breaking
Former Cuban President Fidel Castro ordered the
parking lot in front of the U.S. Interests Section dug
up and the 100-foot-high flags installed in 2006.
The action came after the United States turned on a
five-foot-high news ticker that ran across 25
windows on the outside of the fifth floor of the
mission on Havana's busy seaside Malecon Drive.
The Times Square-style ticker streamed news,
political statements and messages in crimson letters
blaming Cuba's problems on the country's communist
system and socialist economy.
The dozens of huge black flags, which Cuba said
represented more than 3,000 of its citizens killed
over the years by U.S. inspired violence, effectively
blocked it from view.
The bizarre scene, as the two old nemeses
symbolically squared off in Havana, became a tourist
attraction and barometer of the rising level of hostility
The two countries do not have full diplomatic
relations, but maintain lower level interests sections
in each other's capitals.
"They stopped flying the flags completely at least two
weeks ago," a U.S. diplomat said, adding he had no
idea if the measure was permanent.
The Cuban government hasn't commented on the
flags disappearance. The huge -- and now barren --
field of flag poles remains standing and at the ready
where cars once parked just yards from the building's
Soon after the Obama administration took over in
Washington, anti-Bush billboards around the
building, depicting the former U.S. president as
Dracula, Hitler and a terrorist, were taken down.
The news ticker went dark in June 2009 and the
government of Raul Castro, who replaced his brother
in 2008, responded by reducing the size and number
of flags, but still kept some flying.
Cuba Removes One Obstacle to U.S.
Diplomatic contact with Havana, which was
suspended when the ticker lighted up, has resumed
and has been civil, according to U.S. diplomats.
"Maybe removing the flags, and previous steps, are
signs both governments want to move away from
symbols to the substance of U.S.-Cuban relations,"
said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on
Foreign Relations and author of a number of books
The Obama administration has recommenced regular
meetings with the Cuban government on such issues
as immigration, mail service and other matters which
were suspended by Bush, and has lifted restrictions
on Cuban Americans visiting home and supporting
Obama also lifted restrictions imposed by Bush on
academic, religious and some other professional
travel and in other ways has modified decades-old
sanctions to promote "people-to-people" contact with
the Communist-run island, while maintaining a
general ban on Americans visiting the country.
Relations remain strained, however, with Cuba
charging the Obama administration has strengthened
some aspects of the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo
and stepped up efforts to undermine the Cuban
But all is not sanguine between the two countries.
Cuba is preparing to bring to trial U.S. contractor
Alan Gross, detained in late 2009 for accused of
setting up illegal satellite communications as part of a
U.S. program to promote civil society and democracy.
Cuba considers such activities as subversive and is
seeking a 20 year sentence based on the charge that
Gross was acting "against the independence or
territorial integrity" of the country.
U.S. officials have said his conviction would
seriously dampen prospects for any further
improvement in relations.