Diplomacy in Cuba: toothless compassion
By: Daniel Kaiser, 24. 04. 2006

Cuba is in a state of political war with the Czech Republic. One Havana-based Czech diplomat hasn’t had his visa renewed; Prague for its part has done the same for one Cuban diplomat here while Czech Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda has done some tough talking in the run-up to the meeting of the EU Council of foreign ministers: Fidel Castro, so says Svoboda, must be punished.
There’s been a lot of cheering in the Czech media for the minister, and there’s certainly something to be said for Mr. Svoboda – or, to be more accurate, for Czech diplomats on the “Island of Freedom.” For some years now they have been trying to help the Cuban anti-communist opposition. The Czech nongovernmental organization People in Need was more helpful still, certainly in practical terms, having sent equipment and money and having even set up an international pressure group chaired by former President Václav Havel. The group has loudly campaigned for the release of Cuban dissidents.

On top of all of this is meant to be Czech diplomacy, with its adamant stance against Fidel Castro. We have somehow taken the role of the brave few who have the courage to be publicly against the ageing revolutionary. A very good thing in itself.

The trouble is with the “somehow”. In spring 2003, Castro imprisoned more than 70 dissidents and gave them often draconian sentences. The international outcry was huge; even the European Union had to react and imposed diplomatic sanctions on Castro and his lot. Then, a year-and-half later, Europe went back to business as usual (and there was, needless to say, some real business behind the move).

What did the Czech minister of foreign affairs do, say or propose at that moment? The change in the EU’s approach towards Cuba was to be made unanimously, but Svoboda didn’t use his veto. Instead, he said that it was just “time-out” for Castro and that, on his insistence, in six months there was going to be an appraisal. Six months came and went and, of course, nothing happened.

It’s unclear why the vast majority of Czech journalists swallowed Svoboda’s empty boasting then and have been swallowing it ever since. But it’s very clear why the foreign minister behaves this way. He’s the leader of the Christian Democrats (KDU-ČSL) in Prague, a rather rural party in the metropolis. He desperately needs some liberal and modern-looking issues.

That is also why he became such an enthusiastic supporter of an ever-closer Europe and everything European. (He probably even means it and genuinely believes that Europe is the future.) But this sort of thinking has led him into a trap. What if two supposedly progressive ideas clash with each other? He should and could have vetoed the appeasement of Castro in 2005, but made no use of the one-off opportunity because to such a Europeanist it simply seemed inappropriate to block a majority decision. As long as Spain, France and, say, Britain don’t change their minds, Svoboda will have his hands tied in Brussels.

So the Czech politicians and chattering classes remind one of the final scenes in Miloš Forman’s movie Hoří, má panenko (The Firemen’s Ball). An old man who has just had his house burned down desperately needs money; people at the firemen’s ball hand him their tickets for the raffle. The old man stands on the stage and possibly realizes that he can’t expect any real help from them. But the people don’t notice. They are to busy applauding themselves for their generosity.

Daniel Kaiser is a political journalist.