Castro's War on Dissent

Czechs Take a Stand

Protesting Castro's war on dissent
Robert Ménard, secretary-general of the press-freedom organization Reporters sans frontières, leave's Cuba's tourism office in Paris. The office was occupied on April 4 by members of the group (Photo: Martin Bureau/AFP).

The persecution of political opponents of the Cuban dictatorship has elicited an unusually unified protest in the Czech Republic. With the exception of the communists, Fidel Castro’s brutality has been denounced by all key institutions, from the president to Parliament and government, to the churches and representatives of the domestic media. In support of the dissidents, there was a demonstration in front of the Cuban Embassy in Prague [on April 16].

“Imagine a two-meter by three-meter cell that you are not allowed to leave. There is minimal ventilation, the cell has no windows, and the air reaches you only through some kind of vents in the wall. When the steel door is shut behind you, it feels as if you are in an isolated refrigerator. The only sanitary facility is a hole in the ground that functions as a toilet.”

Seventy-eight new political prisoners have just been put into cells similar to the ones that leading Cuban dissident Elizardo Sánchez described to the daily newspaper Mlada Fronta Dnes two years ago. For demanding free elections and a democratic government, they have received an average prison sentence of 20 years. “Under Cuban circumstances, these monstrous sentences mean the threat of death for the convicted. I am not exaggerating!” wrote Oswaldo Payá, a leader of the Cuban opposition, to Respekt.

The Czech Republic protests the action taken by Castro’s regime for two reasons. First, it experienced a totalitarian communist government during which there were a quarter of a million political prisoners. Second, we had a close relationship with Cuba before 1989. In the last half-year of the pre-November regime, we exported goods worth 1.5 billion korunas (US$51.7 million) to Cuba. Nowadays, the figure is one-fifteenth that amount. The personal experience with a totalitarian regime motivated Czech diplomatic efforts to push through a United Nations resolution on human-rights violations in Cuba three times within the past five years. It was an extraordinary success. “From Fidel Castro’s perspective, we have been elevated to second position on the list of Cuba’s largest enemies on some imaginary scale—we’re next to the United States,” says Ivana Hlavsova, head of the Department of American States at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Czech Republic.

Therefore, when Castro decided to inflict a “crushing blow” on his democratic opposition, the Czech Republic did not stay silent. Even President Vaclav Klaus, who used to show indifference in similar cases, issued a clear statement: “The Czech Republic should exploit all possibilities to express its disapproval of human-rights violations in Cuba, and together with the U.S. Congress and European Union countries, support the use of appropriate measures to influence the Cuban government.”

Last Wednesday, David Paulovich, the Cuban charge d’affaires, received two protest notes from the Czech Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One is concerned with the action taken against the dissidents, the other with the execution of the hijackers of a ferry who wanted to emigrate to the United States. “We want to exert permanent pressure on Castro....As mandatory diplomatic policy, I will request that all diplomats raise the Cuban question at any international meeting,” wrote Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda.

After signing agreements on its acceptance into the E.U. last week, the Czech Republic will have greater opportunities on the international political scene. At the next meeting of the E.U. General Affairs and External Relations Council, Svoboda will suggest that the E.U. take a clear stand. “Only specific action can bring results. Here in Athens, the diplomats often unofficially mentioned the question of Cuba, and I feel there is definite intention to take some action.”

The upper house of the Czech Parliament has issued a unanimous statement in support of the Cuban dissidents. Its chairman, Petr Pithart, wants to travel to Cuba and visit some of the prisoners in their cells. “From dissent, I remember how important it was for us when someone from abroad showed us their support,” says Pithart.

Likewise, Czech editors in chief have protested. “Mr. President, release the political prisoners and respect...the cries of Cubans for freedom,” read their appeal. About 30 evangelical ministers expressed a similar opinion; on Wednesday, roughly 200 protesters held white boards above their heads with the names of those sentenced, and chanted, “Shame on Fidel!”