Return to sender: Cuban embassy refuses Czech campaigners' petition

Photo: CTK
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Two years ago, Cuba saw what has been described as the harshest clamp down on human rights on the island nation since the revolution in 1959. In an expression of solidarity with those jailed by the Castro regime, scores of Czech politicians, writers, artists, and other notable personalities donned prison uniforms at the weekend and took turns sitting behind bars in a mock jail cell erected on Prague's Wenceslas Square. On Monday, demonstration organisers brought a petition signed by these "inmates" to the Cuban embassy in Prague.

Matej Cerny, Photo: CTK
The Czech petitioners are demanding the unconditional release-—and pardoning—-of the 75 independent Cuban journalists and other critics of the communist regime of Fidel Castro who were imprisoned during the week-long crackdown on dissidents that began on March 18, 2003.

"Hello, Matej Cerny, from the foundation Clovek v Tisni... Do you hear me? Hello?!"

The petition itself was too big to fit in the embassy's post box and the Cuban staffers refused to open their doors to take hold of it in person. But People in Need, the Czech humanitarian foundation which organised the weekend demonstration and gathered the signatures, intends to do what it can to keep the spotlight on Havana, says the Matej Cerny.

Photo: CTK
"There are two types of politics regarding the totalitarian regimes, let's say the 'tough' and the 'soft' politics. What the Czech government does is the tough politics; they differ on the degree to which they are willing to communicate with the totalitarian regime. The People in Need foundation are together with the Czech government, Czech foreign policy, and we are trying to hold a tough policy."

Over the last year, citing health grounds Cuban authorities have released-—but not pardoned—-over a dozen of the 75 political detainees arrested two years ago this week. Hundreds of other Cubans remain behind bars for their non-violent opposition or conscientious objection to the Castro regime.

Cuban embassy in Prague, Photo: CTK
The March 2003 crackdown triggered an icy diplomatic standoff between Havana and the European Union: but as Mr Cerny notes, the Czech Republic has taken a harder line against Cuba than have most other EU member states.

"The Spanish and some other European countries hold a soft policy; they want to communicate with the regime. And they even wanted to-—in a resolution that was adopted in January—-they even wanted to forbid EU member countries to invite the dissidents to their embassies. However, thanks to our foreign minister, this was omitted from the resolution."

Following the release of 14 political prisoners, Spain had pushed the EU to suspend the diplomatic sanctions imposed on Cuba in June 2003 in retaliation for the round-up of dissidents. As Mr Cerny notes, Madrid also wanted EU member states to ban dissidents from attending official embassy events in Havana, a practice which had angered Fidel Castro.

But when the sanctions came up for review in January last year, the Czech Republic-—along with another formerly communist country, Poland—-refused to side with Spain in what came to be known as the "cocktail war". The outspoken Czech Foreign Minister, Cyril Svoboda, threatened a Prague veto of the sanctions review, and successfully pushed for the suspension to be re-examined within six months, that is, by July.

I asked Matej Cerny if the Czech hard line had affected People in Need's work in Cuba, given that other outspoken human rights groups, such as the London-based Amnesty International, have been banned from working there since 1998.

Cuba, photo: CTK
"Well, luckily not. But I'm not sure if I can tell all the details of what we do and how we do it in Cuba: I don't think that would be such a smart idea. We do a lot; we do a lot inside Cuba, but I'm afraid this is not to be said in public, how we do it."

RP: But you have a very public website which says that you give material support to families of dissidents...

"Yes, that is exactly what we are doing; we are travelling to Cuba and giving support to the families, for independent journalists. But I'm afraid I can't tell you how many people are going there every month."