Return of ambassador to Havana reflects Czech change of tack on Cuba

Havana, photo: Lukas Mathis, CC BY-SA 2.0

After a gap of 27 years, the Czech Republic will soon once again have an ambassador in Cuba, Foreign Minister Lubomír Záoralek has just announced. Ties between the two countries cooled with the advent of democracy in the then Czechoslovakia, but in the last couple of years Prague has been making great efforts to improve relations with the communist state. I asked the director of the Institute for International Relations, Petr Kratochvíl, why the change had come about at this point in time.

Havana,  photo: Lukas Mathis,  CC BY-SA 2.0
“There are several domestic reasons and several external reasons.

“The first of them is that the announcement is timed around a meeting of ambassadors here in Prague. It’s part of the broader PR offensive by the foreign minister.

“The external reasons revolve around what you might generally call a mainstreaming in many parts of Czech foreign policy, regarding relations with Israel, for instance, relations with Cuba – basically following the lead of other EU member states.

“As you know, all relevant EU member states have an ambassador in Cuba.

“So it’s not really a U-turn, in terms of steering the wheel away from human rights promotion in Cuba, but rather balancing it with doing at least some economically- oriented diplomacy that in the past 20 years was almost entirely missing from Czech-Cuban relations.”

Why were ties initially downgraded between the two states?

Petr Kratochvíl,  photo: archive of Institute for International Relations
“That I think is quiet simple. As you know, during the communist times, Cuba was one of the closest allies for the socialist bloc, in particular Czechoslovakia at that time.

“Then after the change, Cuba, perhaps together with Belarus, became a sort of focal point for Czech human rights promotion abroad.

“In this sense Cuba is no exception, because in a similar vein other socialist countries, or communist countries, were targeted by Czech human rights promotion.

“The argument given was that we had a similar experience, we know a lot about the transformation from a communist regime to democracy, and that is why we can help similar countries the best.

“That was the argument, even though in practical terms the results were limited, especially in relation to Cuba.

“This was something in fact which Foreign Minister Záoralek just stressed this week, saying that the policy of isolation and embargo didn’t work, basically echoing the words of President Obama.

“And that is why we are happy to have an ambassador there and to try a different tack.”

Over the years, Czech NGOs have given a lot of support to the Cuban opposition. Is that no longer a problem for the Cuban regime?

Photo: Vgenecr,  CC BY-SA 3.0
“It certainly is a right change, not a radical U-turn, as I said, but there has been a slight change in the focus, or, let’s say, the programmes, which the ministry wants to support.

“But in practical terms not much has changed so far, in terms of support for dissidents or in terms of the focus on particular NGOs here in the Czech Republic that support dissidents in Cuba.

“Of course it is a problem. But I think perceptions on both sides have been changing, both on the Czech side and on the Cuban side.”