Castro Sends a Busy Signal

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The long-distance phone wars just met the Cold War. Starting Thursday, you'll have to use Sprint if you want to dial Havana direct from the continental U.S. Cuba cut AT&T, MCI WorldCom, LDDS, IDB and WilTel services to the island after those companies failed to pay their bills. Their delinquency is based on a Miami court's $187 million compensation award to the families of anti-Castro exiles shot down by Cuban planes in 1996. Knowing they'll never get a bean out of Castro, the plaintiffs have asked the court to seize the phone companies' payments, which have been withheld pending the judge's ruling.

The U.S. State Department opposes nonpayment on legal grounds, arguing that Cuba's phone utility is a separate entity from its government. But the controversy is political rather than legal. Conservative Cuban exiles opposed to Washington's policy of promoting "people-to-people" contact with Cuba see the compensation claim as an opportunity to subvert that policy. Die-hard Cold Warriors certainly don't want Americans reaching out and touching someone (in Cuba).