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Those Mysterious Flagpoles

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of
David Feith of the Wall Street Journal pointed out one of the more puzzling sights visible when the U.S. Embassy was opened again in Havana after having been shut down for half a century.

No, it wasn't the sight of American and Cuban diplomats shaking hands and exchanging pleasantries before challenging each other -- like prizefighters touching gloves before the opening round.

And, no, it wasn't who was there for the formal reopening but who wasn't: none of the Cuban dissidents who used to turn up regularly to protest the regime's repressive policies -- and would then be arrested and carted off. Like the Ladies in White who used to promenade after mass every weekend demanding the release of their imprisoned fathers and sons. They were pointedly not invited to participate in this happy occasion. If this really was the beginning of a new and better era in Cuban-American relations, where were they? But nothing seems to have changed in that regard.

But that wasn't the strangest thing about the reopening of the U.S. Embassy, for if you looked carefully, up, up and away, you could spot a whole forest of flagpoles barely visible in the background. But without flags. What were they doing there? How and why did they get there?

There's a revealing story behind that mystery: It seems that when the embassy was closed, it was demoted to only an interests section, and the diplomats remaining there forbidden to issue public statements or communicate with Cubans in general. But that didn't stop them from sending messages to anybody who might be passing by the former embassy. In 2006 they set up an electronic billboard across 25 windows near the top of the building's seventh floor, beginning with excerpts from Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech, and going on to quote Abraham Lincoln: "No man is good enough to govern another without his consent."

After that, the sign ran one subversive message after another, or at least they were subversive in the eyes of Cuba's ever fearful Communist dictatorship. For instance, the billboard quoted that American political sage George Burns, who is considered a comedian in this country. But nothing may threaten humorless police states more than comedy. The quote from Gracie Allen's husband and straight man was perfect: "How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair."

The billboard even repeated a quip from Frank Zappa, the anti-Soviet rocker: "Communism doesn't work because people like to own stuff."

Then the Evil Empire struck back. The Communist regime set up an Anti-Imperialist Park across from the old Embassy and raised some 150 black flags so the electronic billboard would be obscured from almost any angle. To which the American diplomats responded via their impromptu sign: "Who fears the billboard? Why block it?" Because, of course, tyranny cannot stand even the slightest dissent. Like the lone dissenter who held his ground the morning after Tiananmen Square in Beijing was cleared of protesters in that glorious year 1989, defying a whole column of tanks.

Just let one man stand up for freedom, and the whole, repressive structure of dictatorship may begin to crack. For it is only as strong as each of its subjects, and if one of them revolts, who knows what might happen next? Remember the hundreds of thousands who poured out of East Berlin toward the West, voting with their feet, when the gates were opened?

The real state secret of any tyranny, Vaclav Havel wrote, is its fragility. That writer-playwright-protester would live to head his country, and prove the power of one brave man in a totalitarian society -- if only he will stand up against it.

But the United States itself would shut down the billboard in Havana shortly after a new president, Barack Obama, took office and decided to court Cuba's dictatorship instead of continuing to oppose it. In return, the Communist regime took down its black flags, leaving only those strange poles in the background when the embassy was finally reopened the other day.

Still, black flags or no black flags, the bare poles alone send a message about that regime's continuing opposition to freedom of expression and basic human rights. And why, whatever recognition Washington now grants it, it will never be legitimate. Not as long as the spirit of Cuba Libre lives.

Jose Marti, the Cuban patriot and freedom-fighter of another century, put it well: "Like stones rolling down hills, fair ideas reach their objectives despite all obstacles and barriers. It may be possible to speed or hinder them, but impossible to stop them."

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