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US Turns Off Message Board at Havana Mission

The State Department confirmed Monday the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana has turned off an electronic message board that had irritated the Cuban government. The two countries, long antagonistic, have recently taken steps toward dialogue.

The State Department said the U.S. interests section in Havana has turned off the electronic message board and Cuba has taken down some anti-American signs near the U.S. mission in actions reflecting the modest thaw in U.S.-Cuban relations in recent months.

The message board - running across windows along the fifth floor of the seven-story U.S. diplomatic post on the Havana waterfront- had been flashing news and criticism of the Cuban government's economic and human rights policies in 1.5-meter-high letters - since January of 2006.

Cuban authorities had responded by erecting tall flagpoles and signboards that largely obscured the American message board from public view.

At a news briefing Monday, State Department spokesman Ian Kelly confirmed reports that the message board was turned off last month, and said that Cuba - in what he termed a positive gesture - had taken down some "very negative" signs and graffiti around the U.S. mission.

Kelly said the "dueling billboards" were not serving the interests of promoting a more constructive relationship.

"We believe that the billboard was really not effective as a means of delivering information to the Cuban people. It was evident that people weren't even able to read the billboard because of some obstructions that were put in front of it," he said. "We think that some of the measures that the President announced on April 13, to increase the free flow of information to the people of Cuba, will ultimately be more effective," he added.

In the April 13 announcement, President Obama cleared the way for U.S. telecommunications firms to offer telephone and other services in Cuba, and authorized U.S. residents to pay for phone, internet and other services for relatives and others in Cuba.

He also lifted restrictions on remittances and travel to the island nation by Cuban-Americans.

The broader U.S. economic embargo against Cuba, imposed in 1962, continues and will remain in place - administration officials say - unless there are major changes for the better in the Havana government's human rights policy.

Earlier this month, the two countries resumed talks on migration, which were suspended by the Bush administration in 2003 along with other channels of dialogue after a major Cuban crackdown on political dissidents.

The United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961.

The U.S. interests section in Havana and its Cuban counterpart in Washington were set up by mutual agreement in 1977 to handle consular and other routine matters.

They are technically part of the Swiss embassies in both capitals though in practice they operate independently except in matters of protocol.