‘I am not one of Fidel Castro’s favorite people,” said Václav Havel in February 2001. The millennium is still young, but that should end up one of its greatest understatements. The former Czech president — and still the guiding spirit in that country — is a constant irritant to the Castro dictatorship, even a threat. So is the Czech government at large. Indeed, ordinary Cubans have no better friends than the Czechs, and their relationship makes an amazing story.
That relationship was highlighted by recent events within the European Union. In January, the EU moved to lift sanctions it had imposed on Castro in 2003. This was after the dictator’s brutal crackdown, jailing 75 dissidents. Most remarkably, EU embassies in Havana started to invite dissidents — those still out of prison — to receptions and other official functions. But when the Socialist José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero came to power in Spain, he determined to remove the sanctions on Castro. And Spain has traditionally gotten its way on EU Cuba policy. Part of the drive was to prohibit invitations to dissidents; these had greatly infuriated the regime, and Zapatero wanted to play nice.
But the Czechs — new in the EU — would have none of it. They did everything they could to frustrate the new policy. Martin Palouš, the Czech Republic’s ambassador in Washington, says, “We wanted to be EU partners; we were not keen to destroy their unity.” But neither could the Czechs stomach the policy. And when dissidents in Cuba cried against it, “we reminded everyone that their voices had to be taken into consideration first.” Note that “first” — it is a very Czech conviction.
On January 28, Havel weighed in, with his mighty pen. In an essay published in newspapers around the world, he excoriated the EU, saying it had abandoned principle, conscience, and reason. He spoke of his own time as a dissident, when it was important to meet with diplomats from democratic countries. But now, “one of the strongest and most powerful democratic institutions in the world — the European Union — has no qualms about making a public promise to the Cuban dictatorship that it will re-institute diplomatic apartheid. The EU’s embassies in Havana will now craft their guest lists in accordance with the Cuban government’s wishes.”
The EU “is dancing to Fidel Castro’s tune. That means that tomorrow it could bid for contracts to build missile bases on the coast of the People’s Republic of China.” Etc. And “where will it end? The release of Milosevic? Denying a visa to Russian human-rights activist Sergei Kovalyov? An apology to Saddam Hussein? The opening of peace talks with al-Qaeda?” Havel concluded,
It is suicidal for the EU to draw on Europe’s worst political traditions, the common denominator of which is the idea that evil must be appeased and that the best way to achieve peace is through indifference to the freedom of others. Just the opposite is true. . . . I firmly believe that the new members of the EU will not forget their experience of totalitarianism and nonviolent opposition to evil, and that that experience will be reflected in how they behave in EU bodies. Indeed, this could be the best contribution they can make to the common spiritual, moral, and political foundations of a united Europe.
That tore it. Havel, and his fellow Czechs, effectively shamed the EU. There is some confusion about resulting EU policy — each government may have its own, convenient interpretation — but the general understanding is this: The EU’s 2003 sanctions will be suspended until July, when policy will be reviewed. EU officials traveling to Cuba are strongly encouraged to meet with the opposition, in addition to the regime. Each embassy may decide for itself what to do about invitations. As Cyril Svoboda, the Czech foreign minister, said, “We are on our territory, and we can invite whomever we want.” The Polish deputy foreign minister, Jan Truszczynski, said that if dissidents show up at the Poles’ door, “we will not throw them out.” Spain, France, and the others may be less hospitable. In any event, Fidel Castro is not pleased.
Dictators of this kind long for their opponents to be marginalized, invisible — treated as non-people. They have an interest in portraying them as criminals, stooges, and saboteurs. And the legitimacy conferred on them by dealings with democrats is a threat to absolute rule. Ambassador Palouš — like Havel, a former dissident — recalls what it was to be invited to the American embassy on July Fourth: indispensable.
In the old days, the relationship between Czechoslovakia and Castro was very close. The governments were great trading partners, and the Czechoslovakians represented Castro’s interests in Washington. All this changed when the democrats came to power. In due course, the Czechs began introducing human-rights resolutions against Castro in the United Nations. Before, this was a U.S. task. Says Palouš, “If the issue is the United States versus Cuba, that plays into Castro’s hands. The issue, truly, is Castro versus the Cuban people. And we wanted to put this in a broader, more international context, eventually influencing some folks in Europe — lefties, what you here in the United States call liberals. We wanted to help them drop their bias, give individuals in this type of dictatorship the attention they deserve, and not succumb to cheap Che Guevarian mythology.” In November 1999, Havel — with Lech Walesa and many others — sent a letter of solidarity to four Cuban political prisoners. This may seem a small gesture, but such actions appall and scare the Castro regime. In April 2000, the dictator sent some 100,000 subjects into the streets to march outside the Czech embassy.
In January 2001, he arrested two Czechs in Cuba who had met with dissidents — bearing such weapons as pens, a computer, medicine, and money. These Czechs were held for 25 days, in brutish conditions, before being released. On their return home, Havel invited them and their families to Prague Castle.
The next year, the last of his presidency, Havel went even further. On a farewell tour of the United States, he visited Miami, to meet with Cuban exiles, including a group of former prisoners. Many of these had spent over 20 years in Castro’s gulag. They told Havel it was a supreme honor to meet him. He replied, “No, I spent only five years in prison — the honor is mine.” While in Miami, he received a message from Oswaldo Payá, the Cuban democracy leader (whom Havel has pushed for the Nobel Peace Prize). Payá told him, “You, too, are a plantado” — the Cuban name for a long-serving political prisoner who cannot be broken.
Havel kept going. Through 2003, he made statements and waves, saying, for example, that “Cuba must not and will not remain a forgotten remnant of the Cold War, a kind of open-air museum of a system that discredited itself and failed.” His work led to the creation of the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba, which held a three-day meeting in Prague last September. (Castro’s press remarked bitterly that the center of imperialism had moved from Washington to the Czech capital.) Joining Havel were eminent, freedom-minded people from all over the world: fellow Eastern Europeans, Latin Americans, Americans, Western Europeans (including José María Aznar, Zapatero’s predecessor as prime minister). All involved pledged to work relentlessly for democracy in Cuba, devising various means of doing so. Martin Palouš says, “I can easily call this a coalition of the willing.”
One manifestation of Czech caring is the People in Need foundation, which keeps a faithful eye on Cubans, among others. Adrian Karatnycky, of Freedom House in New York, finds it “rather fascinating that there is an Eastern European human-rights establishment focused on the outside world.” Organizations such as Freedom House have “new allies,” which is “very exciting.”
You might ask, Why the Czechs? Of all those with experience of totalitarianism — even quite recent experience — why are the Czechs so alert to Cuba? Frank Calzón, executive director of the Center for a Free Cuba in Washington, says, “It can be explained in one word: Havel. He is an extraordinary human being.” Calzón points out that Havel’s essay “The Power of the Powerless” circulates throughout Cuba (underground, of course). As with Solzhenitsyn, it does no harm that Havel, a dauntless advocate, can really write. Otto Reich, the former State Department official, says that Havel is important, yes, like Ronald Reagan. But there are legions of others who share the missions of such men, and carry them out. “The Czechs are amazing, at every level. I have seen them in operation. They cannot be intimidated: not by Castro, not by business interests, not by anybody.” Small wonder that their western neighbors are prone to resent them: “an uppity little country that morally outclasses them.”
Ambassador Palouš says that leadership on Cuba is part and parcel of Czech purpose. “Cuba is for us a defining issue: It helps define who we are, who are partners are, what our role in the world is.”
Where others may be blasé about freedom, the Czechs are not. The 15th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall — last November 9 — was little noted in Europe. But the Czechs marked it: with a celebratory concert in Miami. What better way to observe the anniversary, they thought, than to express support for Cuban democrats? Onstage was a rock group whose music had been banned by the old Czechoslovakian regime. Its frontman went on to serve with distinction in the Czech parliament. To Havel and his compatriots, Cuba is a faraway country — but not one of which they know nothing. They know a lot about it. More than Castro would like.
– This piece appeared in the March 14, 2005, issue of National Review.