U.S.- Cuban Relations Ease Another Notch

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Cuba has stopped flying black flags in front of the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, the latest step towards dismantling an in-your-face confrontation that arose around the building during the George W. Bush administration and brought always contentious relations between the two countries to the breaking point.

Former Cuban President Fidel Castro ordered the parking lot in front of the U.S. Interests Section dug up and the 100-foot-high flags installed in 2006.

The action came after the United States turned on a five-foot-high news ticker that ran across 25 windows on the outside of the fifth floor of the mission on Havana's busy seaside Malecon Drive.

The Times Square-style ticker streamed news, political statements and messages in crimson letters blaming Cuba's problems on the country's communist system and socialist economy.

The dozens of huge black flags, which Cuba said represented more than 3,000 of its citizens killed over the years by U.S. inspired violence, effectively blocked it from view.

The bizarre scene, as the two old nemeses symbolically squared off in Havana, became a tourist attraction and barometer of the rising level of hostility between them.

The two countries do not have full diplomatic relations, but maintain lower level interests sections in each other's capitals.

"They stopped flying the flags completely at least two weeks ago," a U.S. diplomat said, adding he had no idea if the measure was permanent.

The Cuban government hasn't commented on the flags disappearance. The huge -- and now barren -- field of flag poles remains standing and at the ready where cars once parked just yards from the building's front door.

Soon after the Obama administration took over in Washington, anti-Bush billboards around the building, depicting the former U.S. president as Dracula, Hitler and a terrorist, were taken down.

The news ticker went dark in June 2009 and the government of Raul Castro, who replaced his brother in 2008, responded by reducing the size and number of flags, but still kept some flying.

Cuba Removes One Obstacle to U.S.

Diplomatic contact with Havana, which was suspended when the ticker lighted up, has resumed and has been civil, according to U.S. diplomats.

"Maybe removing the flags, and previous steps, are signs both governments want to move away from symbols to the substance of U.S.-Cuban relations," said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of a number of books on Cuba.

The Obama administration has recommenced regular meetings with the Cuban government on such issues as immigration, mail service and other matters which were suspended by Bush, and has lifted restrictions on Cuban Americans visiting home and supporting their families.

Obama also lifted restrictions imposed by Bush on academic, religious and some other professional travel and in other ways has modified decades-old sanctions to promote "people-to-people" contact with the Communist-run island, while maintaining a general ban on Americans visiting the country.

Relations remain strained, however, with Cuba charging the Obama administration has strengthened some aspects of the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo and stepped up efforts to undermine the Cuban government.

But all is not sanguine between the two countries.

Cuba is preparing to bring to trial U.S. contractor Alan Gross, detained in late 2009 for accused of setting up illegal satellite communications as part of a U.S. program to promote civil society and democracy.

Cuba considers such activities as subversive and is seeking a 20 year sentence based on the charge that Gross was acting "against the independence or territorial integrity" of the country.

U.S. officials have said his conviction would seriously dampen prospects for any further improvement in relations.