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No holiday in war of words in Cuba

HAVANA – Just in time for the holidays, the U.S.-Cuba propaganda war heated up Friday when Cuban authorities tacked up a huge banner outside America’s diplomatic post in Havana depicting the abuse of Iraqi prisoners.

U.S. officials shouldn’t be criticizing human rights conditions in Cuba while allowing U.S. soldiers to humiliate and sexually abuse captured Iraqis, loyalists to Fidel Castro said.

U.S. officials deny that the Iraqi abuses have been widespread and say Cubans should worry more about their own dismal economic and human rights record.

Pushing that point, James Cason, chief of the American mission in Havana, fired up a glitzy Christmas display a few nights ago outside his office.

The high-voltage display faces the Malecon, the famous seaside roadway in Havana. The display includes a large “75,” referring to 75 Cuban dissidents and pro-democracy activists jailed in 2003 during a crackdown on the political opposition.

Incensed, Cuban diplomats told Cason the lights should be removed. Cason refused. The spat escalated, leading to the unfurling of a banner of Iraqi prisoners.

“The Cuban government’s response is a telling one,” said a U.S. diplomat in Havana, speaking on condition of anonymity. “There couldn’t be a better contrast: the U.S. wishing Cubans happy holidays, Frosty waving at passers-by, and an effort to prompt discussion about human rights on one side, and screaming Cuban government billboards on the other,” the diplomat said.

Meantime, some Cubans say they didn’t know that 75 Cuban activists were arrested last year.

“Who are these 75 guys? What’s that number?” asked Horacio Sanchez, 26, an unemployed welder from Cotorro, a Havana suburb. “I don’t know them. Anyway, I support Fidel Castro, not the Americans who are trying to mess up our lives.”