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July 28, 2009
U.S. turns off Havana news ticker, but Cubans await more

The Cuban government had erected flags to block the view of the U.S. interest section’s news ticker in Havana.

It’s interesting to hear — but not very significant — that the United States under President Obama has turned off the useless news ticker that was running in the windows atop the U.S. interest section in Havana. The move is one more in a series of steps that leaves U.S.-Cuban relations still awaiting some major breakthrough after 50 years of hostility.

The news crawl was a vestige of the belligerent and unsuccessful U.S. policy toward Cuba during the administration of George W. Bush. The Bush administration pretended that it was a means of providing unfettered news to the Cuban people, but the streaming headlines did little more than to give the Cuban government a chance to rally support against American policies. At the time, Fidel Castro established a freedom plaza in front of the U.S. diplomatic building –- located along the Malecon, Cuba’s seafront — and big black flags obscured vision of the ticker when people drove past.

While Obama has rolled back a few other Bush era measures — allowing easier transit by Cuban-Americans to the island, and dropping strictures on how much money family members were allowed to send to their relatives on the island — nothing else has changed. The Cuban government, under Fidel’s brother, Raul, has toned down anti-U.S. rhetoric hoping for an eventual opening to U.S. tourism and other measures that could bring big economic changes in Cuba.

When I was in Cuba earlier this year, I didn’t see any indication that Cubans on the street were lacking information about the basics of what is happening in the United States and the world. And those I spoke to were also surprisingly willing– on camera — to criticize the government for not providing enough
employment, food and opportunities for improving their lives. Young and old were as enthusiastic as people around the world about the prospect of a vigorous, open-minded president of the United States, who happened to be a person of color. And they hoped that Obama would break the logjam.

Cubans appear to know the score, and they’re just tired of waiting for changes that will give them more contact with their friends and relatives in the outside world. Fifty years of the U.S. economic embargo has done nothing to incite popular insurrection in Cuba — if that was the goal — and most people in the United States, even a majority of Cuban-Americans, think it’s time for the embargo to go.

Political reality in the United States makes that difficult. Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican, is promoting phased-in engagement with Cuba, and an eventual end of economic sanctions. The rationale is that increased contact will put the United States in a better position to promote a shift toward democratic change.

His middle-of-the-road approach clashes with hard-line opponents of the Castro brothers who want no change in relations unless Cuba makes a move first on political freedom. They note that several hundred political prisoners are held in Cuban jails. But the United States is unlikely to have leverage to bring any change under the current stagnant formula.

So Cuba and the United States continue plodding along, dealing with vestiges of failed rhetoric and policies passed. The news sign is off on the U.S. interest section, but there’s no sign in the short term that the Obama administration plans to go much further than that.

– Peter Eisner

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Indrani Soemardjan under a Creative Commons license.




Obama is showing that the U.S. is taking a more mature approach to a relationship. Instead of ineffective punitive measures, ‘a la Bush’, he is leaving it up to the Cubans to respond to a measured more reasonable and humanistic approach to form a relationship between the two countries. Also the fact that oil has been discovered off the Cuban coast might help. FR


While I agree with Peter Eisner that the Obama Administration could and should do far more, I think it was an important symbolic step to turn off the childish and ugly electronic billboard affixed to the US Interests Section in Havana. The Cubans should respond by removing the equally childish and ugly black flags they implanted to block the view. The job will be finished when the five foot sign boards and 100 foot flag poles are permanently removed.

A more significant initiative will be for President Obama to finally allow unrestricted non-tourist people-to-people travel for educational, religious, humanitarian and cultural purposes. For their part the Cubans should permit travel to the US for similar purposes of improved mutual understanding such as study on US government sponsored scholarships.

Such beneficial steps were endorsed last week in a letter to the President from eighteen national organizations including the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, Alliance for International Educational and Cultural Exchange, American Institute for Foreign Study, CIEE – Council on International Educational Exchange, Community Colleges for International Development, Latin American Studies Association, NAFSA: Association of International Educators, and the Social Science Research Council.*

If Congress passes legislation to end all restrictions on American travel to Cuba, Havana should respond to the strong call by leading Cuban academic and cultural figures to do away with exit visas.

John McAuliff
Executive Director
Fund for Reconciliation and Development
Dobbs Ferry, NY
914-231-6270, 917-859-9025

* text of letter and full list of signers“>NAFSA letter


Probably, Obama will only go so far with Cuba. You’ve got to believe he wants to go further than that (turning off the news ticker) but he’s a kind of go-slow guy. Maybe he’ll invite the hardline right-wingers and the Castro brothers to the White House for a beer!

Peter Eisner is an editorial consultant with Worldfocus and a 30-year veteran of international news. He has been an editor and foreign correspondent at The Washington Post, Newsday and The Associated Press. He co-authored “The Italian Letter,” which details fraudulent intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. He was founder and president of Newscom, an international online news service, and speaks Spanish and Portuguese.

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