HAVANA – Cuba retaliated for the U.S. diplomatic mission's Christmas display supporting Cuban dissidents by putting up a billboard Friday emblazoned with photographs of American soldiers abusing Iraqi prisoners and a huge swastika overlaid with a "Made in the U.S.A" stamp.
The billboard, erected overnight facing the U.S. Interest Section's offices, stands on the Malecon, Havana's (search) famed coastal highway.
A diplomat at the mission noted the abuse of prisoners at Iraq's Abu Ghraib (search) prison had been widely reported and discussed openly and said those responsible were being prosecuted.
"On the other hand, the Cuban government does not allow a single word of dissent in its media, jails those who dare espouse different ideas and has not allowed (anyone) to visit Cuban political prisoners since the late 1980s," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the mission's diplomatic status.
The U.S. mission, headed by James Cason, rejected a demand this week to remove Christmas decorations that included a reference to dissidents jailed by Fidel Castro's (search) government.
The trimmings included a Santa Claus, candy canes and white lights wrapped around palm trees — and a sign reading "75," a reference to the 75 Cuban dissidents jailed last year.
Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon called the display "rubbish" on Wednesday and said Cason seemed "desperate to create problems." No other Cuban officials have commented.
Wayne Smith, who headed the U.S. mission here during the Carter and Reagan administrations and has long advocated restoring normal diplomatic relations with Cuba, said he thought the images of prisoner abuse in Iraq were an appropriate response by Castro's regime.
"If I were in their shoes, this is what I would do — call attention to the fact that the United States is now guilty of torture, of massive violations of human rights," Smith said by telephone from Washington.
"Yes, I'd like to see the 75 all released, but we're in no position now to criticize anyone," he said.
But the billboard's Nazi reference went too far, Smith added.
A pair of Australian tourists passing by called the billboard tasteless, while a Greek traveler said it simply represented the truth.
"These are the crimes in Iraq, the torture of Iraqi people by the Americans," said Antonio Nankoudis. He then pointed to the U.S. mission, saying, "And there are the assassins."
Cubans also supported the billboard.
"This is well-placed, so the whole world understands that what's most important is humanity," said Evelio Perez, who at first looked startled when he walked past the billboard with his family.
Smaller billboards with photographs of prisoner abuse in Iraq went up in less conspicuous places, including near a back entrance to the U.S. mission and at the neighboring Anti-Imperialist Plaza.
Cuba-U.S. relations, never good during four decades of communist rule on the island, have deteriorated during the Bush administration, which has toughened economic sanctions and publicized its plan for a democratic Cuba after Castro.
The two countries have not had formal diplomatic relations since shortly after Castro's guerrillas seized power in 1959. The U.S. Interest Section provides only consular services and limited official contact.
Cuban officials charged last year that the imprisoned dissidents got money from U.S. officials to undermine the island's government — a charge the activists and Washington denied. They were sentenced to up to 28 years in prison, but 14 have since been released for medical reasons.
Smith, who headed the Havana mission from 1978 to 1982, said the political Christmas decoration was a deliberate provocation, but a benign one.
"Let's hope that the U.S. Interest Section may realize that two can play at this game and let it go at that," he said.