Czech foreign minister: Thaw in relations with Cuba does not mean Prague will abandon human rights agenda

Photo: Richard Hewitt / freeimages

A thaw in diplomatic relations between the Czech Republic and Cuba should soon see the two countries appointing ambassadors and reviving trade ties that go back half a century. Czech government officials stress that the “renaissance” in bilateral relations does not mean that Prague will in future abandon the human rights agenda in negotiations with Havana.

Photo: Richard Hewitt / freeimages
The fall of communism in Czechoslovakia in 1989 brought decades of communist brotherhood with Cuba to an abrupt end and Prague became one of the staunchest defenders of human rights on the island. Relations turned frosty and in 1993 diplomatic ties were downgraded to charge d’affaires level as the two countries traded insults, Havana calling Prague a lackey of the US. In 2001 a Czech MP and student leader were briefly jailed by the Cuban regime after contacting members of the opposition and four years later then-senator Karel Schwarzenberg was expelled from the country for the same reason. The Czech Republic continued to support the Cuban dissent and was a vocal advocate of sanctions against the Castro regime.

However in the past twelve months bilateral relations have mirrored the gradual thaw in Cuba’s relations with the US and the EU. In the autumn of last year Prague sent a trade mission to Cuba to re-establish business contacts and capitalize on the good reputation of the “Made in Czechoslovakia” label in Cuba. Foreign Minister Lubomír Zaorálek:

“The continuity in business relations was never completely severed. So it is not like we are back to square one. There are areas of cooperation where we will simply pick up on our long-standing business ties and in other areas we can make use of new opportunities. The important thing is that Czech businesses are interested in the Cuban market and were waiting for the door to open.”

Lubomír Zaorálek,  photo: Filip Jandourek
Both sides have expressed interest in boosting trade and developing closer cooperation in the spheres of culture, science and education. According to the foreign minister the ground has been prepared to take diplomatic relations to a new level and the two countries should appoint ambassadors within a matter of months. In an interview for Radio Prague Foreign Minister Zaorálek said this does not mean that Prague will abandon the human rights agenda in negotiations.

“We made it quite clear in negotiations with Havana that the principles which have governed our foreign policy in the past remain unchanged, that we remain committed to human rights issues and want contacts with all parts of Cuban society, including the opposition. At the same time the agreement between the EU and Cuba gives us a new platform on which to raise human rights issues.”

In 2014 the two countries’ turnover exceeded 600 million crowns. The leading Czech export commodities to Cuba were electrical machinery, turbines, motorcycles, grains, dairy products and pharmaceuticals while it imported tobacco, coffee, cocoa and fish.