Cuba libre? Czechs defy EU pressure to end 'cocktail wars'


Despite strong opposition from the Czech Republic and Poland -- two new European Union member states that had lived under communist regimes -- EU foreign ministers on Monday agreed to end a diplomatic freeze imposed on Cuba following the imprisonment there of 75 political activists in March 2003. But the Czechs and Poles won a moral victory in successfully pushing to allow for individual EU states to choose sides in the so-called "cocktail wars" that followed.

Fidel Castro,  photo: CTK
Following the release of some Cuban prisoners, most EU countries, in particular Spain, had wanted to make a gesture of goodwill to Cuban president Fidel Castro by not allowing dissidents to attend diplomatic soirees. The Czech Republic was among the handful of EU states on the other side of the "cocktail wars" that refused to let Castro dictate who could attend embassy events.

"We just would not allow it ..."

In an interview with Czech Radio, Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda, explained that, on principle, the Czech Republic simply refused to submit to controls over which political representatives it could or could not invite to embassy receptions in Havana.

Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda,  photo: CTK
On Monday, European Union foreign ministers agreed to temporarily lift the sanctions it imposed on Cuba in June 2003. Minister Svoboda had pushed hard for any such action to be reviewed within six months, threatening to veto any resolution that didn't include it.

Along with Poland, the Czech delegation also fought hard for EU foreign ministers to pledge support for opposition leaders in Cuba; the resolution adopted on Monday underlines that the EU will seek to develop "more intense relations with the peaceful political opposition and broader layers of civil society in Cuba."

"Human rights are one of the main pillars of the foreign policy of the Czech Republic and I think this was proven yesterday. We support the democratic opposition in Cuba, which means we support independent journalists, families of political prisoners..."

Karolina Novakova is a project manager for the Czech foundation People in Need, which has for the past seven years has provided the Cuban opposition with material, financial and moral support and nearly two years ago began delivering aid directly to the families of prisoners of conscience.

This suspension of diplomatic sanctions follows the release of 14 political prisoners last year. Meanwhile, the EU is calling for the "urgent" and "unconditional" release of all Cuban dissidents. But Ms Novakova says that the EU was premature in reaching out to Cuba, as there was no real amnesty of prisoners and the handful who were released were in ill health.

"We definitely think that this was a bad sign. Once, the European Union said it insisted on the release of all 75 prisoners, of all political prisoners; then some are released and it moves the European Union to changes its position almost immediately. That's a little strange; there was no amnesty or real liberation. These people who are now out of prison -- they were released only because of their state of health but if their condition improves some could go back to prison. These were people who should never have been in prison."

The former Czech president Vaclav Havel, himself a one-time political prisoner and celebrated international figure, had also lent his moral weight to the debate, chastising the EU for entering into what he called a "shameful deal" that "spits on all the principles" of democracy and human rights espoused in the draft EU constitution.