U.S., Cuba in flap over decorations

Thursday, December 16, 2004

HAVANA -- U.S. diplomats on Wednesday refused to take down their offices' trimmings of Santa Claus, candy canes and white lights wrapped around palm trees, ignoring a demand by Cuba to remove Christmas decorations that include a reference to dissidents jailed by Fidel Castro's government.

The element that irked the Cuban authorities most was a sign among the decorations that reads "75" -- a reference to 75 Cuban dissidents jailed last year, U.S. Interest Section Chief James Cason said.

Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon called the sign "rubbish" on Wednesday and told reporters that Cason seems "desperate to create problems."

Cuba had warned the U.S. Interest Section in Havana to remove the decorations or face unspecified consequences, but Alarcon did not say what the consequences would be. No other officials from Castro's administration have commented on the spat.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher defended the decorations, and said there are no plans to take them down until after the holidays.

The "75" sign "shows our solidarity with Cubans who struggle for democracy and freedom, when we think it's appropriate, at the holiday season, to remember ... these people who are missing because of political repression," Boucher said.

A reporter who drove past the Interest Section on Wednesday saw the sign and the other decorations still displayed along Havana's coastal Malecon highway. There were no onlookers and little traffic because of a tidal surge that threatened the area with flooding.

"Our intent, in the spirit of Christmas, was to call attention to the plight of these 75," Cason told reporters. "We're prepared to pay whatever price for the things we believe in."

Cuban Foreign Ministry officials insisted in meetings Saturday and Tuesday that the decorations be taken down, Cason said.

"They could expel us, they could continue to hinder our activities," Cason said. "We don't know what they're going to do."

Wayne Smith, a former U.S. Interest Section chief who for years has advocated the establishment of normal ties with Cuba, said Cuba should resist the temptation to expel Cason.

"It could well be that is exactly what Cason and the State Department would want," Smith said.

Smith, who served as the top American diplomat in Havana from 1978 to 1982, believes a more appropriate Cuban response would be to mount a display near the mission that highlights U.S. mistreatment of prisoners in Iraq or at the Guantanamo Bay naval base in Cuba.

Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., in Havana for trade talks between American agribusinesses and the Cuban government, declined to comment specifically on the Christmas decorations.

Baucus, the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said instead: "I just believe that we have a great future ahead of us, both the United States and Cuba, if we just stay on a positive course, and work to build relationships."

U.S. relations, never good during four decades of communist rule, have deteriorated under President Bush, whose administration has toughened economic sanctions and publicized its plan for a democratic Cuba after Castro.

The United States and Cuba have not had diplomatic relations since shortly after Castro took over. In lieu of embassies, interest sections provide consular services and limited official contact.

The dissidents imprisoned last year were accused of receiving money from U.S. officials to undermine the island's government -- a charge the activists and the U.S. government denied. They were sentenced to up to 28 years in prison, but 14 have been released for medical reasons.

Associated Press writer George Gedda contributed to this report from Washington.

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