Thu, Dec 16, 2004 - Page 7 News List

Cuba not amused by US mission's Christmas lights

THREAT Havana has warned of `consequences' if the US embassy fails to remove the decorations, which include a reference to government opponents

AP , HAVANA

The Cuban government has threatened the US diplomatic mission in Havana if it doesn't immediately take down Christmas decorations outside its offices, the top American diplomat on the island said on Tuesday.

The trimmings of Santa Claus, candy canes and white lights twirling down palm trees outside the oceanfront building don't appear to be the problem.

What is likely irking the Cuban authorities, US Interests Section Chief James Cason said, is a lit-up sign that says 75 -- a clear reference to 75 Cuban government opponents rounded up in a massive crackdown last year and sentenced up to 28 years in prison.

"Our intent, in the spirit of Christmas, was to call attention to the plight of these 75," Cason told reporters. "We're prepared to pay whatever price for the things we believe in."

Cason said officials from Cuba's foreign ministry, including the director of North American affairs, insisted the decorations be taken down in meetings on Saturday and Tuesday. The US Interest Section refused, and was told there would be consequences.

"They could expel us, they could continue to hinder our activities," Cason said. "We don't know what they're going to do."

"We'll find out shortly," he said.

US relations have been rocky with Cuba ever since President Fidel Castro launched a communist revolution in the country more than four decades ago.

Under the administration of US President George W. Bush, economic sanctions against the island have been tightened, and a blueprint for a democratic transition has been designed.

The government opponents imprisoned last year were accused of receiving money from US officials to undermine the island's system -- a charge the activists and the US government denies.

Since the crackdown in March of last year, 14 of the original 75 prisoners have been released for medical reasons.

Last Friday, Cason gathered dissidents as well as the relatives of political prisoners at his home to bury a time capsule with messages spelling out their dreams for a different kind of Cuba to mark International Human Rights day.

Despite the actions of the Cuban government, Cason said the US diplomatic mission will defend its activities -- and its choice of holiday ornamentation.

"Our position is that our Christmas decorations are up through Christmas," he said. "It's a matter of principle to us."

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