Photo: divya_

It was an action that didn’t make big headlines, but it may just be the next step in the US-Cuba political thaw.

First, some background.

The United States’ diplomatic presence in Cuba (if that’s not entirely a contradiction) is not to be found in an embassy or a consulate, but in a pseudo-consulate semantically distinguished as the “United States Interest Section Havana.”

Occupying some choice real estate along Havana’s ocean front, the Interest Section’s professional purview is a bit different from that of your typical embassy or consulate (you can read all about what they do–and what they don’t do–here). For one thing, the building itself became a tool for communicating US propaganda to Cuban people during the Bush administration.

Three Januaries ago, the Interest Section installed some snazzy new technology: an electronic ticker board, much like the electronic news spools you see in Times Square. The board was inaugurated on Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, broadcasting the message: “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up” (a rather crude appropriation of King’s message, if you ask me).

“I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up.”

The message was changed periodically, and though the Interests Section says the billboard’s purpose was to display “news and information,” critics–notably, El Comandante himself–pointed out that the line between news and rhetoric was a little bit blurry.

In fact, the messages were so annoying to Castro that he had an installation art work erected to obscure the billboard from the public eye. The flag poles in the photo above– all 138 of them–prevented passersby from glimpsing the US’s messages. Castro even had competing billboards (not electronic–after all, 2006 was the Year of Energy in Cuba) put up, protesting US involvement in Cuban affairs.

Anyhow, earlier today, the Financial Times reported that the US quietly turned off the ticker recently, with little fanfare from either side. The fact that the US didn’t announce the ticker’s demise and that Cuba didn’t gloat about the dimmed electronic billboard clearly signals a detente, according to journalist Marc Frank.

Citing a “Western diplomat,” Frank wrote:

“’That they turned off the ticker is important – and that nobody has noticed is significant, too…. The Cubans could have howled victory – but [they] said nothing, indicating they are serious about improving relations.’ The diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said some local contact may have resumed already. Easing of travel restrictions for US and Cuban diplomats in each other’s capitals was expected soon.

It appears the standoff about the US mission – an attraction for tourists and a symbol of relations with the Bush administration – is winding down. The Cuban government took the billboards down soon after Barack Obama took office. There have been no marches past the building since Raul Castro took over from his ailing brother Fidel in February last year.”

Many individuals and advocacy groups who hoped for a speedier thaw in US-Cuba relations have criticized President Obama for what seems to be a deliberate pacing in bilateral negotiations. But it’s steps like these–which seem so little–that will ultimately lead to change in the decades long freeze between the US and Cuba.