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    U.S.- Cuban Relations Ease Another Notch

    U.S.- Cuban Relations Ease Another Notch
    How Black Flags and a News Ticker Caused a Diplomatic Dust-up
    Feb. 11, 2011

    Cuba has stopped flying black flags in front of the
    U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana, the latest step
    towards dismantling an in-your-face confrontation
    that arose around the building during the George W.
    Bush administration and brought always contentious
    relations between the two countries to the breaking

    Former Cuban Fidel ordered the
    parking lot in front of the U.S. Interests Section dug
    up and the 100-foot-high flags installed in 2006.

    The action came after the turned on a
    five-foot-high news ticker that ran across 25
    windows on the outside of the fifth floor of the
    mission on Havana's busy seaside Malecon Drive.

    The Times Square-style ticker streamed news,
    political statements and messages in crimson letters
    blaming Cuba's problems on the country's communist
    system and socialist .

    The dozens of huge black flags, which Cuba said
    represented more than 3,000 of its citizens killed
    over the years by U.S. inspired , effectively
    blocked it from view.

    The bizarre scene, as the two old nemeses
    symbolically squared off in Havana, became a tourist
    attraction and barometer of the rising level of hostility
    between them.

    The two countries do not have full diplomatic
    relations, but maintain lower level interests sections
    in each other's capitals.

    "They stopped flying the flags completely at least two
    weeks ago," a U.S. diplomat said, adding he had no
    idea if the measure was permanent.

    The Cuban government hasn't commented on the
    flags disappearance. The huge — and now barren —
    field of flag poles remains standing and at the ready
    where cars once parked just yards from the building's
    front door.

    Soon after the Obama administration took over in
    Washington, anti-Bush billboards around the
    building, depicting the former U.S. president as
    Dracula, Hitler and a terrorist, were taken down.

    The news ticker went dark in June 2009 and the
    government of , who replaced his brother
    in 2008, responded by reducing the size and number
    of flags, but still kept some flying.

    Cuba Removes One Obstacle to U.S.

    Diplomatic contact with Havana, which was
    suspended when the ticker lighted up, has resumed
    and has been civil, according to U.S. diplomats.

    "Maybe removing the flags, and previous steps, are
    signs both governments want to move away from
    symbols to the substance of U.S.-Cuban relations,"
    said Julia Sweig, a senior fellow at the Council on
    Foreign Relations and author of a number of books
    on Cuba.

    The Obama administration has recommenced regular
    meetings with the Cuban government on such issues
    as immigration, mail service and other matters which
    were suspended by Bush, and has lifted restrictions
    on Cuban Americans visiting home and supporting
    their families.

    Obama also lifted restrictions imposed by Bush on
    academic, religious and some other professional
    travel and in other ways has modified decades-old
    sanctions to promote "people-to-people" contact with
    the Communist-run island, while maintaining a
    general ban on Americans visiting the country.

    Relations remain strained, however, with Cuba
    charging the Obama administration has strengthened
    some aspects of the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo
    and stepped up efforts to undermine the Cuban

    But all is not sanguine between the two countries.

    Cuba is preparing to bring to trial U.S. contractor
    , detained in late 2009 for accused of
    setting up satellite communications as part of a
    U.S. program to promote civil society and democracy.

    Cuba considers such activities as subversive and is
    seeking a 20 year sentence based on the charge that
    was acting "against the independence or
    territorial integrity" of the country.

    U.S. officials have said his conviction would
    seriously dampen prospects for any further
    improvement in relations.