Cuba expels Czech senator

Senator Karel Schwarzenberg, photo: CTK

Relations between Cuba and the Czech Republic have been thorny for some years, with vocal opposition to the Castro regime in Prague. Now Havana has increased tensions yet again, expelling Czech senator Karel Schwarzenberg just hours after he arrived in Cuba for an opposition meeting. Mr Schwarzenberg arrived in Cuba on Thursday on a tourist visa, and insisted he had not broken any law. Meanwhile, the Czech Foreign Minister describes his expulsion as unacceptable, saying it proves that Cuba is a totalitarian state.

Senator Karel Schwarzenberg,  photo: CTK
Senator Karel Schwarzenberg, a member of old Bohemian nobility and former president Vaclav Havel's chancellor, was among dozens of European legislators invited to a meeting of dissident groups in Cuba. But, he says, police picked him up at his hotel, brought him straight to the airport and put him on a plane back to Europe. I spoke to Dana Baschova of the Czech humanitarian aid group People in Need which, among other activities, supports the opposition movement in Cuba.

"Mr Schwarzenberg was supposed to meet different opposition leaders, the opposition movements in Cuba and he was also supposed to attend the meeting which will take place today. It is meeting of the Assembly for the Promotion Civil Society. It is a meeting of independent civic organisations in Cuba and the topic of this meeting is actually discussions about possible changes towards democracy."

European diplomats are watching closely to see if Cuba will allow the meeting - which has not been banned - to take place freely. Czech Senator Karel Schwarzenberg was not the only European legislator who was denied participation by the Cuban authorities.

"The Cuban authorities are obviously very nervous because of this meeting, so they denied entry to two Members of the European Parliament from Poland, they were sent back from the airport of Havana, they were not even allowed to enter Cuba. Mr Schwarzenberg was expelled together with a German member of parliament and the reason, obviously, is that the Cuban authorities do not want the outside world to know about what is happening in Cuba."

Both the Chairman of the Czech Senate, Premysl Sobotka, and the Foreign Minister, Cyril Svoboda, have condemned the expulsion of Mr Schwarzenberg. The European Union must decide next month whether to reapply diplomatic sanctions over human rights abuses in Cuba, which has ignored EU calls for the release of 61 jailed dissidents. The Czech Republic's position is that the EU should - if anything - adopt an even tougher stance on Cuba; Minister Svoboda says Thursday's events only serve to confirm that the Czech position is correct.