Senate chairman returns from Cuba empty-handed

Petr Pithart

After more than three weeks, the fate of two Czechs imprisoned in Cuba remains unclear. The chairman of the Czech Senate, Petr Pithart, travelled to Havana last week for talks with Fidel Castro to try to gain their release. The meeting was repeatedly postponed and, after delaying his return to the Czech Republic, Mr Pithart finally met the Cuban leader on Saturday. And after intense speculation over the result, he returned home empty handed. Nick Carey has this report.

Fidel Castro invited Mr. Pithart to Cuba for talks last week, after the Czech Senate leader wrote him a letter asking for the release of two Czechs, MP Ivan Pilip and former student leader Jan Bubenik, who were arrested in Cuba on January 12th, and charged with subversion after meeting Cuban dissidents.

Hopes were high in the Czech Republic that Petr Pithart could negotiate the release of the two men, but these began to fade as the meeting was repeatedly put off. The long-awaited meeting finally took place on Saturday, and lasted a full six hours. But instead of returning to the Czech Republic accompanied by Ivan Pilip and Jan Bubenik, Fidel Castro told Mr. Pithart that the Czech Republic will have to apologise for their actions, or the two will stand trial. The Czech press has described the mission as a failure, and has left some people wondering what was the point in inviting Pithart to Cuba in the first place. According to independent commentator, Vaclav Pinkava, Castro's intentions were not to negotiate, but to make political capital out of the situation: Fidel Castro had already called on the Czech Republic to apologise for the actions of Mr. Pilip and Mr. Bubenik, prior to his meeting Petr Pithart. The Czech government has refused to do so, saying that the two men were on private business, and were not representing Czech interests in Cuba. Whatever Cuba's demands for an apology, says Vaclav Pinkava, it would be very hard for the Czech government to comply: The pre-trial investigation against Ivan Pilip and Jan Bubenik is expected to last up to three months, so it seems safe to assume that this issue will remain unresolved for the foreseeable future.