WSJ: The Bare Flagpoles of Havana

Tuesday, August 18, 2015
By David Feith in The Wall Street Journal:

The Bare Flagpoles of Havana

Before Obama restored ties to Cuba, he ended an inventive U.S. effort to promote freedom.

There was an odd sight over John Kerry’s shoulder as he stood in the Havana sun Friday. At a flagpole in front of him, U.S. Marines were raising the Stars and Stripes to mark the return of a U.S. embassy to Cuba after 54 years. Choreographed and solemn, that was the scene that U.S. and Cuban leaders wanted the world to see.

Behind Secretary of State Kerry, though, was a peculiar sea of other flagpoles, tall and empty, steel spires rising from nowhere. These were visible in photographs splashed across world news but little noted. Which is unfortunate. Because those steel poles are a reminder of an unusually creative and bold chapter in recent U.S. diplomacy—and one the Obama administration ended.

In 2006 the U.S. faced a challenge. For nearly 30 years it had been operating a quasi-embassy in Havana, known as an Interests Section, from the same building that housed the U.S. Embassy before the 1961 break in formal diplomatic ties. The Bush administration wanted to support liberalization by aiding the victims of the Castro regime, including labor activists and journalists and those punished for trying to worship, work or travel freely. But U.S. officials were largely confined to the Interests Section, barred from freely meeting the public or communicating through the state-controlled media.

So American diplomats decided to make clever use of one of the few resources they had: their building. Across 25 windows near the top of the seven-story structure, they created a giant electronic billboard. With 5-foot-tall red letters, they could broadcast messages to the Cuban public from prime real estate along central Havana’s busy Malecón esplanade.

The sign went live on Martin Luther King Day with translated excerpts from the “I Have a Dream” speech, resonant in Cuba with its messages of civil rights and of racial equality—the island’s Afro-Cuban majority often suffers the brunt of the regime’s cruelty. “No man is good enough to govern another man without his consent,” the billboard also declared, quoting Abraham Lincoln.

Its messages on other occasions: “In a free country you don’t need permission to leave. Is Cuba a free country?” and, from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, “Everyone has the right to leave any country, including his own, and to return to his country.”

Some of the offerings were more acid. “How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair,” the sign blared, quoting comedian George Burns. Then there was the wisdom of rocker (and anti-Soviet icon) Frank Zappa, who quipped that “Communism doesn’t work because people like to own stuff.”

The electronic ticker also offered news about Cuban baseball stars who defected to the U.S. major leagues and became millionaires. And it noted that Forbes magazine had named humble Communist Fidel Castro the world’s seventh-richest head of state, estimating his personal wealth at $900 million.

Months after the billboard came to life, Mr. Castro designed a countermeasure. Across from the U.S. Interests Section, in a plaza called Anti-Imperialist Park, he planted nearly 150 large black flags to obscure from most angles the view of America’s messages.

U.S. diplomats responded, via the ticker: “Who fears the billboard? Why block it?” The answers were obvious. As the Soviet dissident playwright-turned-statesman Václav Havel wrote, the essential truth about tyrannies is their fragility. Tyrants rely on lies, and they fear that any irruption of truth—the circulation of samizdat literature, or even a lone greengrocer refusing to show fealty to the state—could start to unravel the whole fabric of government control.

Hence Mr. Castro’s decades of brutal information suppression and his jitters over a single Havana billboard beyond his grasp. Yet he is nothing if not a survivor, and visitors to Havana reported that his strategically placed flags mostly did the trick in keeping the U.S. ticker out of view. Still it served as a quiet beacon of liberal solidarity in an otherwise benighted land.

Until it didn’t. In June 2009 the Obama administration shut the ticker off, one of the first in a series of U.S. and Cuban gestures leading to last year’s restoration of diplomatic relations and now the transformation of the U.S. Interests Section back into a formal embassy. After the billboard faded to black, the Castro regime took down its oversize flags, leaving behind the bare steel flagpoles that loomed over Friday’s event.

Absent from that ceremony, meanwhile, were any voices of Cuban liberalism. Blogger Yoani Sanchez, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet, “Ladies in White” protest leader Berta Soler: No such dissidents were invited, a sadly fitting reflection of the Obama administration policy by which the Castro regime gains international prestige and hard currency without offering compromises on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly or other basic human rights.