Czech and Cuban diplomatic wars heat up again

Stanislav Kazecky, photo: CTK

"The Ministry of Foreign Affairs considers the act of the Cuban authorities as the de facto expulsion of the Czech diplomat, or a declaration of the Czech diplomat as a persona non grata." Richard Krpac, spokesman for the Czech Foreign Ministry, reacting to the latest move in a long-running diplomatic conflict between the Czech Republic and Cuba.

Stanislav Kazecky,  photo: CTK
A quick glance at a summary of Czech-Cuban relations since 1999 reveals that these two states—formerly allied during the communist period—have been far from friendly in recent years. Perhaps most dramatic were the events of January and February 2001, when two Czechs, former Finance Minister Ivan Pilip and Jan Bubenik, spent three weeks in a Cuban jail after making contact with Cuban dissidents, and Petr Pithart, then the Senate Chairman, flew to Havana to negotiate their release. More recently, this past January two Czech women, Helena Houdova and Mariana Kroftova, were arrested and briefly jailed for taking photographs in poor districts of Havana.

Last Wednesday, tensions flared again when Vit Korselt, the Chargé d'Affaires of the Czech embassy in Havana, was called to the Cuban Foreign Ministry and told that the diplomatic visa of Stanislav Kazecky would not be renewed. As events were developing before the weekend, Richard Krpac from the Czech Foreign Ministry explained how the Cuban authorities initially justified their non-renewal of Kazecky's visa:

"The Cuban authorities have not given any specific reasons why the Czech diplomat has been expelled. We definitely know that the reasons are the long-standing and principled stand of the Czech Republic on human rights in Cuba, and the promotion of civil society in Cuba."

Does the Czech Foreign Ministry have any notion of why Castro's regime has singled out Mr. Kazecky? Has he as a diplomat been particularly involved in promoting the dissident community in Cuba, or helping them in any way?

"We think that Mr. Kazecky has not violated any rule whatsoever—no rule considering international law, or any domestic laws in Cuba. Yet we obviously heard all the usual Cuban propaganda regarding this expulsion."

Then last Friday, the Cuban Foreign Ministry declared that the number two man at the Czech embassy in Havana had tried to enter a Cuban military base and photograph it—a clear violation of standard security protocol. Stanislav Kazecky denies the accusation:

"To the best of my knowledge, I never set foot on any military base belonging to Cuba, and this was definitely not my intention. I never had a problem of this sort, and no one ever informed me that I had violated some security space. In a country like Cuba, where there are many current or former military bases, the situation there is such that during a two-year stay you can't expect to avoid at least driving by some sort of military base. However, I was never alerted to such an incident, and I definitely did not take any photographs—nor did I ever attempt to take any photographs."

Despite repeated phone calls from Radio Prague, the Cuban embassy in Prague declined to issue a statement concerning this matter. What is clear is that the Cubans are upset by the Czech Republic's foreign policy, which has since the 1990s taken a consistent hard-line regarding human rights abuses in Cuba. The Czech Foreign Minister, Cyril Svoboda, who has himself been denied an entry visa to Cuba three times, has much to say on the subject of Czech support for Cuba's democratic underground culture:

Stanislav Kazecky and Cyril Svoboda,  photo: CTK
"We are not supporting dissidents, we are supporting democrats, people who want a change and the maximum success for their country. They want freedom, openness, prosperity and security. The conflict in that society is long-standing, and the position of the Czech Republic is viewed positively by the people who want democratization in Cuba. I think this support from the Czech Republic can lend important moral inspiration, but we must remember that we are dealing with a movement that is domestic in nature. This battle is taking place in Cuba—it's not financed or organized by us. I'm convinced that the approach is absolutely correct. Perhaps many of you will remember what it was like in socialist Czechoslovakia, how important such support was for those who were in internal exile. Whatever sort of moral support came from the outside world was incredibly important—even more important than financial support. This type of moral support is very powerful."

Critics of the Czech Republic's policy towards Cuba are at times quick to accuse Prague's policy-makers of towing Washington's line. Meanwhile, the Cuban government has accused Stanislav Kazecky of spying for the Americans. Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda does not take kindly to such interpretations:

"I categorically declare that this has nothing to do with any political position of the United States of America. It seems to me rather naïve to say that the Czech Republic is someone's lackey. It is absurd and unacceptable. In this country we decide according to our own principles, and this is the independent political position of the Czech Republic vis-à-vis Cuba. Therefore, there is no connection between whatever negotiations and visits take place between Czechs and Americans in the United States, or at the U.S. embassy here in Prague. This is an absurd suggestion and no such thing exists in this case."

When the news that Stanislav Kazecky would be denied continued diplomatic status in Cuba came late in the day on April 12th, he was several hundred kilometres away from Havana, "on business," as the Czech Foreign Ministry first reported. When I met with Stanislav Kazecky at Prague's Ruzyne airport on Sunday afternoon, moments after he had disembarked a long flight, my first question to him concerned what he was doing outside Havana:

"I was in Santiago de Cuba, which is the second largest town in Cuba, in the east of the country. When I was in the east of the country I was meeting with some representatives of Cuban cultural life, and as well with some representatives of the civil society."

You spent almost two years in Cuba. How deep were your contacts with the opposition community—that is, the opposition to Fidel Castro's regime?

"Well, it was one of the main purposes of my stay in Cuba, and I have to say that after these two years, I guess I know very well who is who in the Cuban civil society. I'd also like to mention that it's not the opposition—civil society is the right term to use."

When the news came, you were given 72 hours by the Castro government to depart Cuba. Was there any consideration that you would stay on Cuban territory for longer than the 72 hours, and if you had done so, what would have happened to you?

"I don't think you can go against a decision like this, against decisions of the government of the country where you are accredited. So, according to my personal opinion there was no chance to stay in the country without the diplomatic visa."

To be expelled from Cuba would be seen by some as an honour, given that you were thrown out of what the Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda describes as an undemocratic country. How do you see the situation?

"Well, I was accredited as a diplomat and for me it's not a question of being proud, or a question of my pride. I was working for the Czech embassy, representing Czech foreign policy and I had to leave—this is the only thing I can say about this."

With Stanislav Kazecky now back in Prague, the Czech Foreign Ministry has decided to reciprocate and a Cuban diplomat posted in the Czech Republic will be packing his bags for Havana this week. Observers of these heated diplomatic spats can expect further tensions as the Czech Republic is preparing a detailed presentation to European Union member states, who are scheduled to review their policy towards Cuba in June.