Castro: U.S. Billboard Is 'a Gross Provocation'

HAVANA, Cuba, Jan. 24, 2006 — -- Hundreds of thousands of Cubans marched by the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana to protest a U.S. ticker tape flashing messages.

President Fidel Castro charged that the Bush administration was not only trying to torpedo relations but that the United States was also coddling anti-Cuban terrorists.

"The Bush administration, not in agreement with the decision adopted by President Carter May 30, 1977, is trying to force a rupture in the minimal diplomatic relations with Cuba," Castro said in a brief speech in front of the U.S. mission before the demonstration began.

Castro termed the ticker, which began to send messages urging Cubans to oppose the government a week ago, "a gross provocation and perverse affront to Cuba's dignity and sovereignty no government could accept."

You've Got a Message

The U.S. electronic message board, with 9-foot-high crimson letters running through 25 windows on the building's fifth floor, can be seen kilometers away.

Even as Castro spoke, the ticker sprang to life with news interspersed between messages such as, "only in totalitarian societies do governments talk at their people and never listen."

The United States broke diplomatic relations and imposed a trade embargo on the Caribbean island soon after Castro swept to power in a 1959 revolution. Since 1977, the two countries have maintained counselor-level Interests Sections in each other's capitals to handle visas and other matters.

"We are only trying to communicate with the Cuban people. Only a dictator would be upset," said Michael Parmly, the top U.S. diplomat in Havana.

But a number of Western diplomats said the ticker was a serious violation of diplomatic norms.

"This time they have gone way over the top," one diplomat said, asking that his name not be used.

Since President Bush took office -- with strong support from the Florida-based Cuban American community -- he has tightened sanctions and ordered diplomats in Havana to be more aggressive in their opposition to the Castro government.

For more than four hours, marchers streamed along Havana's seaside drive past the U.S. mission, waving Cuban flags and posters of Luis Posada Carriles. A Cuban-born former CIA agent, Posada is accused of a series of terrorist attacks on the country, including the 1976 bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed all 73 people aboard.

Posada was arrested in May on a minor immigration charge for allegedly entering the United States illegally.

The Bush administration has refused to extradite Posada to stand trial on terrorism charges in Venezuela, where he is a naturalized citizen, or to charge him with more serious crimes.

Posada's lawyers were expected to seek his release at an immigration hearing in El Paso, Texas, on the grounds that illegal aliens cannot be detained for an unreasonable length of time.

The march was also called to protest what Cuba sees as the Bush administration's double standard in the war against terrorism when it comes to violence-prone Castro opponents.