Ending the Electronic Billboard Pain in the Ano

The US does not have an embassy in Cuba.   The US broke diplomatic ties with Cuba Jan. 3, 1961. The US does have the United States Interest Section Havana, Cuba.  It is a in a very large building as both “looks” and “acts” like a embassy.  On Jan. 16, 2006, the windows became an electronic billboard are started running messages for the Cuban people to see.  Most were quotations about freedom from such historic figures as Martin Luther King Jr. (the first message to go up) and Abraham Lincoln.  There were even some funny criticism from the likes of George Burns. (http://eccentricstar.typepad.com/public_diplomacy_weblog_n/2006/01/us_uses_times_s.html)

 The billboard is a form of public diplomacy as it delivers messages from a government to citizens of another country.  The parts for the electronic billboard were smuggled into the US facility adding intrigue to this public diplomacy.  Fidel Castro was not amused.  Construction equipment appeared shortly after the sign began running and blocked the view of the sign.  The idea was for people to be able to see when they were on a heavily trafficked seaside highway.  The construction equipment was used to build a bank of 148 flags to obscure the sign.  People need to be within a block to really see and read the message as a result of the flag barrier.   Here is part of a news story about the dispute:

“U.S. diplomats acknowledge that the flags have limited their audience, even posting a message that read: ‘Who fears the billboard? Why block it?’ But even if only a few people see the billboard and talk about its messages, something has been accomplished, Eric Watnik, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said in a telephone interview from Washington.

‘Castro gets angered by the truth, yet they call their revolution a revolution of ideas. So, we’re battling with ideas,’ Watnik said. ‘The people of Cuba aren’t able to enjoy freedom of expression — we’re bringing them positive messages from the free world.’” http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/05/12/AR2006051201879.html

In July of 2009, the US turned off the sign.  The sign going dark was an example of the steps being made to improve relations between the US and Cuba.  It should be noted that the sign had limitations because it was not programmed for the Spanish language lacking accents and tildes.  A favor among the media and comedians like Jon Stewart was the not having a tilde turned “año” meaning year into “ano” meaning anus.  Whatever the flaws, electronic billboard public diplomacy was over. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2009/jul/27/us-mission-ticker-cuba


Questions to Consider

  1.  What public diplomacy objectives could be pursued through an electronic billboard (Chapter 14)?
  2. How does the case illustrate the difficulties language creates when public relations goes international?
  3. How do the flags illustrate concerns with the marketplace of ideas?
  4. How did the removal of the sign serve as public diplomacy?
  5. Are they any ethical issues with the original use of the electronic billboard?
  6. Would you describe the creation of the sign as more public relations that public diplomacy?  Why or why not?

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