Cuba Uses Power Play, Literally, on U.S. Station

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On June 3, the Cuban government cut power and water to the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. After the story was reported by the international media, power and water were restored. Robert Siegel talks with Michael Parmly, chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Now, relations between Cuba and the U.S., specifically between Cuba and the U.S. Interest Section in Havana. In a moment, we'll hear from the chief U.S. diplomat in Cuba who has been waging a battle of billboards with the government of Fidel Castro. First, a rare U.S. news conference by the man considered the third most powerful figure in the Cuban regime after Castro and his brother Raul.

Ricardo Alarcon, the speaker of Cuba's National Assembly. He was questioned by the convention of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in Fort Lauderdale. Alarcon appeared by video from the CNN Havana Bureau. And at the beginning of the interview, he was challenged about freedom of the press and the jailing of journalists in Cuba.

Mr. RICARDO ALARCON (Cuban National Assembly): The point is very simple. Cuba has the right to protect the right to protect itself, to protect its independence, and has been subjected to a propaganda offensive, to use the CIA's own words.

SIEGEL: That's the speaker of the Cuban National Assembly, Ricardo Alarcon, appearing by video at the convention of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists in Florida.

Now to Havana, where Michael Parmly is chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, welcome to the program, Mr. Parmly.

Mr. MICHAEL PARMLY (U.S. Interest Section in Havana): Thank you, Mr. Siegel.

SIEGEL: The latest wave of what the Cubans call a propaganda offensive and what they cite the CIA as calling a propaganda offensive would be the electronic sign that runs on your building. First of all, can you describe for us the sign and what it typically says?

Mr. PARMLY: It's a series of panels that runs along the east side of the building. And what it says changes on a daily basis. And primarily, it's news. This is an attempt to provide news that one doesn't find in any Cuban sources. We like to bring news primarily from the world. We also like to provide sports scores because Cubans are so fond of sports, especially baseball.

SIEGEL: Well, is it a propaganda effort to beam information from the U.S. interest section out to the - they've put up a whole field of flags to obscure the view of your building to Cubans.

Mr. PARMLY: Right. What's interesting is if you walk along the Malecon, you can still see the billboard. And we often notice people walking along and writing things down. And whether those are regime officials who are scurrying back to their offices to write reports or simply Cuban citizens, in either case, it accomplishes the purpose. What we try and do is simply inform the Cuban people about what's going on in the world.

SIEGEL: Last week, you complained that the Cubans had cut electricity and water to the Interest Section. I gather it's been restored after about a week. And the Cubans say it was simply a problem with the neighborhood grid. Do you buy that?

Mr. PARMLY: Right, right. Yes, it was restored. And, interestingly, it was restored after the Nuevo Herald in Miami ran a headline saying this was going on. And, all of a sudden, we found that it was turned back on after about 24 hours.

SIEGEL: You don't buy their denials. This was politics by other means, in this case, by reducing power.

Mr. PARMLY: Yes, it's been a series of steps that have been taken since January. In fact, since we turned the billboard on. And it makes a fairly consistent pattern - no, a totally consistent pattern - of attempting to interfere with the operation of the intersection in a variety of ways.

When we put up the billboard, it was our effort at dialogue with the Cubans, which is why some days we turned it on and other days we turned it off. Totalitarian governments talk and talk and talk. Democratic governments like to listen to people. And so, as a symbol of that, we turn the billboard off and we try to be out and meeting with Cubans. And Cubans seem to welcome that.

SIEGEL: At some level, though, both Democratic governments and totalitarian ones operate embassies and they manage to deal with each other according to some norms. Those norms don't seem to operate very well in Havana at this point, as far as the U.S. is concerned. But would we appreciate a not very friendly nation in Washington having a big billboard over its embassy running al-Jazeera bulletins about, you know, the insurgency in Iraq? Doesn't sound like it would be very friendly.

Mr. PARMLY: No, but what would we do in response? I think a more fundamental question, though, is where is it necessary? If you consider where we have diplomatic missions around the world, there's not a diplomatic installation that matches the total propaganda domination that the Cuban government exercises here. It helps that it's an island. So one wants to be as creative, as imaginative as one can be, and as for whether or not Washington would object if the Cuban interest section put up its own electronic billboard, why don't they try it?

SIEGEL: Mr. Parmly, thank you very much for talking very much for talking with us.

Mr. PARMLY: It's a pleasure to talk with you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's Michael Parmly, who is chief of the U.S. Interest Section in Havana, Cuba.

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