The Cuban government has warned the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana to immediately take down Christmas decorations outside its offices or face unspecified consequences, the...

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HAVANA — The Cuban government has warned the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana to immediately take down Christmas decorations outside its offices or face unspecified consequences, the top American diplomat on the island said yesterday.

The trimmings of Santa Claus, candy canes and white lights wrapped in palm trees on the mission’s seaside lawn don’t appear to be the problem.

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What was likely irking Cuban authorities, U.S. Interest Section Chief James Cason said, is a lighted sign about 3 feet in diameter among the decorations that reads “75” — a reference to 75 Cuban dissidents jailed last year.

The sign was among the decorations closest to the street, which is on Havana’s coastal Malecon highway.

“Our intent, in the spirit of Christmas, was to call attention to the plight of these 75,” Cason said. “We’re prepared to pay whatever price for the things we believe in.”

Cuban Foreign Ministry officials insisted the decorations be taken down in meetings Saturday and yesterday, Cason said. The U.S. Interest Section refused, and was told it would face unspecified consequences.

“They could expel us, they could continue to hinder our activities,” Cason said. “We don’t know what they’re going to do.”

U.S. relations, never good during Fidel Castro’s four decades of communist rule, have deteriorated under the Bush administration, which has toughened economic sanctions and publicized its plan for a democratic Cuba after the death of the 78-year-old leader.

The United States and Cuba have not had diplomatic relations since shortly after Castro took over. In lieu of embassies, interest sections provide consular services and limited official contact.

The dissidents imprisoned last year were accused of receiving money from U.S. officials to undermine the island’s system — a charge the activists and the U.S. government denied. They were sentenced to up to 28 years in prison, but 14 have been released for medical reasons.

Cason said the Cuban government was annoyed by an event at the mission for relatives of political prisoners and a Christmas party held for their children.