Christmas decorations are seen at night at the U.S. Interest Section in Havana
Claudia Daut  /  Reuters file
This year's Christmas decorations at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana include a lighted display of the number 75 in remembrance of the March 2003 arrests of 75 opponents of Cuba's communist government.
updated 12/15/2004 1:55:00 PM ET 2004-12-15T18:55:00

U.S. diplomats on Wednesday ignored a warning from the Cuban government to immediately take down Christmas decorations outside its offices or face unspecified consequences.

The trimmings of Santa Claus, candy canes and white lights wrapped in palm trees still stood on the mission’s seaside lawn a day after the warning. The element that irked the Cuban authorities most was a sign among the decorations that reads “75” — a reference to 75 Cuban dissidents jailed last year, according to U.S. Interest Section Chief James Cason.

A reporter who drove past the interest section Wednesday saw the sign and the other decorations were still displayed along Havana’s coastal Malecon highway. There were no onlookers or even traffic because of a tidal surge that threatened the area with flooding.

“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.”

Cuban Foreign Ministry officials insisted the decorations be taken down in meetings Saturday and Tuesday, Cason said. The U.S. Interest Section refused, and was told it would face unspecified consequences.

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

Cuban Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon called the sign “rubbish” on Wednesday, and told reporters that Cason seems “desperate to create problems.”

Alarcon declined, however, to say what the consequences would be. No other Cuban officials have commented on the spat.

Relations worsen during Bush tenure
U.S. relations, never good during Fidel Castro’s four decades of communist rule, have deteriorated under the Bush administration, which has toughened economic sanctions and publicized its plan for a democratic Cuba after the death of the 78-year-old leader.

The United States and Cuba have not had diplomatic relations since shortly after Castro took over. In lieu of embassies, interest sections provide consular services and limited official contact.

The dissidents imprisoned last year were accused of receiving money from U.S. officials to undermine the island’s system — a charge the activists and the U.S. government denied.

They were sentenced to up to 28 years in prison, but 14 have been released for medical reasons.

Cason said the Cuban government was annoyed by an event at the mission for relatives of political prisoners and a Christmas party held for their children. He said state security officers outside his house intimidated the children as they arrived to the party.

“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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