Beginning Jan. 16, an electronic billboard high on the side of the U.S. Interests Section building in Havana has been streaming words from Abraham Lincoln, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and European anti-Soviet dissidents like Vaclav Havel, all in 5-foot-high crimson letters. Their purpose is to slander Cuba’s democracy and to discredit its revolution.
Cubans responded with a protest march of 1.4 million people in Havana on Jan. 24. They took the occasion to settle other scores with the Bush administration, too.
Speaking on television two days before the march, Cuban President Fidel Castro denounced the billboard as a provocation aimed at forcing a final break in relations between the two countries. He called upon the Cuban people to march in opposition to both the electronic display and to U.S. plans to set terrorist Luis Posada Carilles free.
On the same day, a U.S. immigration court was hearing arguments calling for Posada’s release from detention. Washington has refused to extradite Posada to Venezuela to face charges that he helped bring down a Cuban airliner in 1976, killing 73.
Castro gave other reasons for marching. He denounced the U.S. war on Cuba’s economy, its plans for a transition to capitalism in Cuba, and the enormous political power wielded by right-wing Cuban Americans. He noted U.S. disregard for refugee agreements, Bush’s interference with U.S.-Cuba agricultural sales, and U.S. restrictions on financial support and visits to family members in Cuba.
Referring to Cuba’s determination to resist any U.S. attack, Castro said, “We will strike with all our moral force, and we are disposed to spill our last drops of blood in the face of any bellicose aggression of the mutinous and brutal empire that is threatening us.” Observers likened the combative tone of the president’s message to the build-up preceding the march for repatriation of Elian Gonzalez in 2000.
At 8 a.m. on Jan. 24, Castro greeted the first line of Cubans marching on the Malecon, Havana’s seaside highway. Pointing to the billboard, he said, “They have turned on their little electronic ticker. How brave the cockroaches are!” Protesters marched by the U.S. Interests Section for the next seven hours.
Castro marched at the head of the last contingent, a group of several thousand young people. He told them: “Never had I witnessed anything like this. Our people have turned the lies by the crooks and torturers of the U.S. empire into gunpowder. … They are defeated; injustice is on its knees. Nobody believes in the empire, it has been exposed with its insolence and its lies.”
The next day, Castro visited over 100 workmen working on a construction project in front of the Interests Section. Speculation has it that a counter-display is in the works, although the president would not divulge any plans. Answering reporters’ questions, he accused Washington of using the Interests Section as a smuggling operation, bringing in tons of electronic equipment in its “diplomatic pouch” for subversive activity.
Cuba will resist through peaceful means, he said. “We sow ideas and consciousness. We have means for helping the world; our human capital is growing and is not running out, because it is not gold or oil or nickel.”
Earlier that day a U.S. immigration spokesperson took pains to announce that officials were “moving forward to carry out Mr. Posada’s removal from the United States,” suggesting that he may not be settling down in Miami after all.
Critics of the billboard note that many of the electronic messages have been taken out of context. Dr. King, for example, is revered in Cuba as a fighter for equality and justice, but his “dream” never included inciting counterrevolution in Cuba. Cubans point to the FBI’s hounding of King, continuing racial oppression in the United States, and torture carried out at Guantanamo and in Iraq as evidence of the hypocrisy of Bush administration officials who invoke his name.