The United States says that despite complaints from the Fidel Castro government, it will not take down Christmas decorations at its mission in Havana that draw attention to the plight of Cuban political prisoners.
The United States has had diplomatic ties with the communist government in Havana through its Interests Section since 1977. But the relationship has been uneasy, with tensions underscored again this week by the dispute over Christmas decorations at the U.S. mission.
The building, which housed the U.S. embassy in the pre-Castro era, has traditionally been decorated with Christmas lights for the holiday season. However this year, the decorations include a lighted number 75, which the Interests Section chief, James Cason, says honors the 75 Cuban leading dissidents arrested last year and given prison terms of up to 28 years.
Briefing reporters here, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said the Cuban foreign minister has twice demanded that the display be taken down and threatened retaliation if it is not removed, but that the United States is standing firm. "The Interests Section has put up decorations like this, Christmas tree lights, for years," said Richard Boucher. "And we do not plan on taking down our holiday decorations until the holidays are over. One of our displays is a simple sign with the number 75. This is a reference to the 75 prisoners of conscience that the Castro regime jailed in 2003. It shows our solidarity with Cubans who struggle for democracy and freedom. We think it's appropriate at the holiday season to remember these people."
Mr. Boucher acknowledged that the numerical tribute to the prisoners was not a traditional Christmas decoration but rejected a suggestion it is a political provocation. He said U.S. missions around the world put up seasonal decorations with decisions on their nature decided by diplomats posted there. He described the display in Havana as, in his words, "a remembrance in a season of peace that there are people who don't have peace." The spokesman also said Cuban secret police last week tried to intimidate children of the 75 jailed dissidents who were invited to a holiday party at Mr. Cason's residence.
The Cuban dissidents were convicted of sedition and other charges for allegedly conspiring with Mr. Cason against the Castro government. Several of the prisoners have been freed in recent weeks in a move seen as being aimed at improving relations with the European Union, which had halted dialogue with the Castro government after the dissident crackdown but resumed some diplomatic contact last month.