HAVANA The United States has turned off a news ticker at its diplomatic mission in Havana that long had irritated the Cuban government, the U.S. State Department said on Monday, in another sign of efforts to improve relations with Cuba.
The five-foot-high (1.5-meter) news ticker ran across 25 windows on the outside of the fifth floor of the U.S. diplomatic mission's building on Havana's busy seaside Malecon drive. It streamed news, political statements and messages blaming Cuba's problems on the country's communist system and socialist economy.
The ticker infuriated Cuban President Fidel Castro when it was turned on by former U.S. President George W. Bush's administration in 2006. President Raul Castro took over from ailing elder brother Fidel last year.
After the United States launched the ticker, Cuba erected obstructions so it could not be seen and put up anti-U.S. billboards. Cuba took down those billboards earlier this year.
State Department spokesman Ian Kelly told reporters in Washington that the news ticker was turned off in June.
Kelly said the ticker was "really not effective as a means of delivering information to the Cuban people" and, together with the earlier Cuban billboards, was "not serving the interests of promoting a more productive relationship."
"It was evident that the Cuban people weren't even able to read the billboard because of some obstructions that were put in front of it," Kelly said.
The turn-off of the news ticker comes amid moves by U.S. President Barack Obama to ease nearly half a century of enmity between the United States and Cuba following Fidel Castro's 1959 revolution.
"Like other Bush initiatives, (the ticker) caused lots of fanfare in Miami (home to many Cuban-Americans) and very little impact in Cuba, and President Obama is right to bury it," said Phil Peters, a Cuba expert at the U.S.-based Lexington Institute think tank.
The United States broke diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, but since 1977 the two countries have maintained Interests Sections -- diplomatic operations that are not full embassies -- in each other's capitals.
Earlier this month, U.S. and Cuban officials held their first talks since 2003 on Cuban migration to the United States, a step U.S. officials said showed Washington's desire to engage constructively with the communist-ruled island. They also discussed how to ease restrictions on their diplomats traveling outside Havana and Washington.
The Obama administration this year also lifted restrictions on Cuban-Americans traveling to the Caribbean island and sending remittances to family members.
But Obama has made clear he will keep in place the 47-year-old trade embargo against Cuba until the Cuban leadership moves to improve political and human rights.
Cuba has expressed an interest in broadening the immigration talks to include drug trafficking, human smuggling and disaster preparedness.
The U.S. Interests Section news ticker in Havana often sought to cast blame for everyday problems experienced by Cubans on the communist authorities.
"Some go around in Mercedes, some in Ladas (a Russian car), but the system forces almost everyone to hitch rides," read one message, playing on a common complaint that there are few buses and that Cubans need government permission to buy a new car.
Furious about the ticker, Fidel Castro accused the U.S. mission of becoming "headquarters of the counterrevolution," which he said violated diplomatic protocol.
He ordered a parking lot in front of the building to be dug up and 100-foot-high (30.5 meter-high) flags installed to block the ticker from view.
He also marched a million people by the mission in protest, erected billboards around it depicting Bush as allied with anti-Castro terrorists and decreed there would be no more contact with U.S. diplomats in Havana as long as the ticker remained on.
(Additional reporting by Tim Gaynor in Washington; Editing by Pascal Fletcher and Will Dunham)