Czechs praised for Cuba stance
High-ranking U.S. official reaches out in Prague during first visit
By Jeffrey White
Staff Writer, The Prague Post
October 26, 2005
As the United States prepares for the eventual fall of communism in Cuba
— which observers say could happen at any time — it expects Czechs, no
strangers to life under totalitarianism, to play a role.
So says a senior U.S. State Department official, here in mid-October to
praise the Czech Republic's efforts to promote democracy in the last
remaining dictatorship in Latin America.
Czech officials have long called for a tougher European policy toward
the Caribbean island nation, something Caleb McCarry, the public face of
U.S. President George W. Bush's Cuban policy, wants to encourage.
"The Czech government has taken special interest and done
extraordinarily good things to try and help the Cuban people free
themselves from this dictatorship [of Fidel Castro]," said McCarry, who
chose Prague for his first foreign visit as head of the Commission for
Assistance to a Free Cuba, a Cabinet-level office.
McCarry, whom Bush appointed to the commission in July, talked with
members of the Foreign Affairs Ministry, Parliament, Czech humanitarian
groups and former dissidents on his two-day visit to the Czech Republic,
part of a 10-day trip to Europe.
Odd as it might seem that a landlocked country thousands of miles away
from the blue Caribbean could be key to Cuba policy, McCarry said
economic or geopolitical interests are not driving Czech involvement.
"I think the real reason they are involved is because they think it's
the right thing to do. They suffered under a communist dictatorship and
they want to help the Cuban people free themselves from a communist
dictatorship," he said.
Czechs have supported dissidents in Cuba since the 1989 revolution here,
and more recently they have taken to publicly criticizing the Castro
regime on the global stage, largely through annual United Nations
resolutions. Former President Václav Havel, still hugely admired in Cuba
for his heroism while he himself was a dissident, founded the
International Committee for Democracy in Cuba in 2003. And Czech
humanitarian organizations and parliamentarians have made trips to Cuba
to meet with dissidents and give aid to families.
Tensions have also grown between the Czech Republic and Cuba. A
one-year-old office in the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the Transition
Promotion unit, has made change in Cuba a priority. And in 2001 two
Czech citizens, Jan Bubenik and former Freedom Union Deputy Ivan Pilip,
were detained for almost a month for alleged partisan activities against
the Castro regime.
Many Czech businesses still operate in Cuba, and under the pre-1989
regime thousands of Cubans studied in Czechoslovakia, which built much
of Cuba's infrastructure.
McCarry's visit comes at a time when the United States and the European
Union differ on Cuba policy. Since 1960 the United States has enforced a
total trade embargo: It does not import Cuban-made products or allow
American food, medical supplies or capital to flow into Cuba. The EU,
which has not joined that embargo, has been debating, largely at the
behest of Spain, whether to soften its stance toward Havana.
While the Czech delegates don't agree that an embargo is the best
alternative, they have been urging the EU away from what Foreign Affairs
Minister Cyril Svoboda calls "a soft policy" toward Cuba. Czechs want
policy to focus more on promoting opposition activities on the island.
"I have presented my intention to see Cuba, to realize an official visit
there," Svoboda said. "We've been told we would not be welcome."
McCarry said the purpose of his trip was "to engage our allies" on Cuban
policy. The United States intends to keep pressure on the Castro regime
through sanctions, he said, but the United States and the EU must also
be ready with a plan when political change comes to Cuba.
"In the Czech Republic, people have sympathy and a similar experience
with a dictatorship. They can provide a unique supportive view," said
Dana Baschová, head of the People in Need foundation, who met with
McCarry. The foundation has been supporting Cubans since 1997; last year
it raised $10,000 (24,870 Kč) for families of Cuban dissidents.
McCarry chose to end his trip in Madrid because Spain has been a loud
voice for softening the EU's stance toward Cuba. In 2003 the EU
eliminated state visits to Cuba after the Castro regime jailed 75
dissidents, but Spain has called for renewing official dialogue rather
than increased talks with government opposition.
— Kristína Mikulova contributed to this report.
Jeffrey White can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org