Prague Finds a Cause
Citing bitter memories springing from a reviled shared communist past, and with its strong, if highly selective, commitment to backing democratic political systems abroad, the Czech Republic today has become one of Cuba’s most lethal enemies worldwide. It also now operates in the EU, and has stepped up its efforts ever since Prague gained entrance to the European body and President Václav Havel stepped down from the Czech presidency in 2003. One way that the Czech government manifests its stellar up-front role in punching out Havana is the significant backing it receives and gives for such efforts from U.S.-backed and publicly financed opposition movements within Cuba, as well as U.S. exile groups with which it has close fiduciary and fraternal ties.
Prague helps to fund, or otherwise accommodate, local and international rightwing shock groups along with a host of NGOs who exhaust their spleen on Cuba’s transgressions, real and apparent, and little else. Similarly, the Czech foreign ministry and its delegation to the European Union have become major vehicles – to Washington’s lusty applause – to counteract efforts by many U.S. Congressman, enlightened EU officials and private research bodies to work for a constructive engagement with Havana in order to re-incorporate Cuba into mainstream hemispheric relations. In doing so, the Czech Republic joins several of Washington’s geographically proximate banana republics, like Honduras and El Salvador, as spear carriers in advancing its ideological war against Havana. But unlike the Czech Republic, these two Central American satrapies are becoming uneasy over the subservient role they are expected to play in order to receive U.S. funding.
McCarry Praises Czechs
Czech efforts to use that spear on Castro’s Cuba have not gone unnoticed in Washington. In fact, they have been feted. Caleb McCarry, who served as staff head of the House International Relations Committee’s Sub-Committee on Western Hemisphere for eight years, some of which he shared with another seething ideologue, Roger Noriega, prospered under the then ultra-conservative ex-chairman of the full committee, Ben Gilman (R-NY), and his former Senate counterpart, ex-Senator Jesse Helmes (R-NC). Together with Dan Fisk, who served under Helms, they carried their unrelenting crusade against Castro throughout the executive and legislative branches. McCarry, who has gingerly worked the anti-Havana ramparts from his House position, was eventually rewarded last year when he was named “Transition Coordinator for Cuba,” which is intended to guarantee that a Washington-friendly figure will be installed as Castro’s successor, and not Fidel’s brother Raul. Among those who were present as McCarry was being sworn in to his new post by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was the Czech ambassador to the U.S., Martin Palous, who was especially recognized from the podium by a grateful Bush administration.
Several weeks ago, McCarry traveled to Prague, where he congratulated the Czechs, as a local newspaper described it, for long calling for “a tougher European policy toward the Caribbean island nation.” Prague was the first stop for McCarry’s ten-day European visit to whip up anti-Castro sentiment on the other side of the Atlantic. McCarry brought with him a caustic measure regarding how the U.S. will be spending a new grant of almost $60 million in federal funds, as the latest boondoggle to Miami’s Cuban exile community, which will be added to the Czech Republic’s sizeable expenditure on its own “Transition Promotion” office in that country’s foreign ministry. According to the Prague Post, while the Czechs do not support the U.S. embargo, Prague authorities “have been urging the EU way from what Foreign Affairs Minister Cyril Svoboda calls a ‘soft policy’ toward Cuba. Czechs want policy to focus more on promoting opposition activities on the island.”
Getting Down to Brass Tacks
Despite Cuba’s spurning of Prague’s anti-Castro policies and the negative initiatives being acted upon by the Czech delegation’s leadership role in pressing its anti-Castro mission within the EU against Brussels’ overwhelming desire for a more diplomatic and less churlish approach towards Cuba, the Czechs are remaining firm. As a result eyebrows are being raised by its somewhat parochial position of obduracy on the issue. Prague has gone far beyond a moderate principled advocacy in raising legitimate issues with Havana. Because of this, antipathy against it is being manifested throughout Western Europe, including at the highest of levels within the EU, due to the militancy, if not ferocity, of its anti-communist, hard-line, and almost obsessive anti-Cuban stance. This is not only a question of the fulminations of some wild-eyed behavior by some odd ultra-right wing NGO or extremist Miami or Washington-based and taxpayer funded U.S.-Cuban exile group, or publications bearing a burning ideological commitment to advance an anti-Cuba agenda. The propellant behind Havel’s jihad is something along the lines of an almost biological odium for the Castro regime, which he and many others in the Czech political establishment see almost as a parental-mandated obligation which must be carried out.
Whatever is Prague’s motivation, Cuba is not just another miscreant state that heartlessly clamps down on its critics. Demonstrably, Czech authorities could find 20 nations throughout the world, including some not far removed from its own borders, which, arguably, are equally justifiable targets for their zealotry. But Prague’s gigantic sense of moral superiority doesn’t allow such misgivings to be equally attracted to such causes – Cuba indisputably is its mark.
It is Cuba which finds itself so convincingly within Czech diplomacy’s bulls-eye as a target for Prague’s tireless cannonades, while its officials raise private and public funding to back an array of anti-Castro initiatives. Czech authorities also aggressively seek out the support of like-minded governments and international entities which provide sustenance as well as diplomatic support for an ensemble of Castro hunters like Reporters Without Frontiers and Freedom House. This clutch of firmly conservative and would-be human rights advocates would have one believe that Cuba represents the world’s master conspiracy against the rights of man, rather than a third-tier human rights abuser, which they happen to loath all out of proportion to a just cause.
Not Looking for Constructive Engagement
The almost incomprehensible intensity of Prague’s anti-Castro role has caused a number of EU officials to find it a “strange” kind of thing, with one senior official terming the Czech’s total obsession with Cuba’s derelictions as “poisoning the EU well” and almost “monomaniacal.” The bottom line is that the Czech Republic has become a tiresome burden on the EU’s ability to mount a credible campaign to integrate Havana into a rational diplomatic construct that would resolve the issue of peaceful succession to the Castro era, as well as allow the European body to work out major trade issues and matters of a new relationship with Latin America that could beneficently transform the region and the world, and yet not appear as a water boy for Washington’s anti-Castro double standard. What is certain is that it will be Prague’s radical and shrill anti-Castro rants, rather than Cuban dogma or dreary human rights infractions, that will end up putting off the international community as being unproductive and self-serving.
Nor does Prague necessarily adequately vet the bona fides of hard-core anti-Castro organizations operating out of the Czech Republic or with which it collaborates in Miami and Washington. Czech government authorities, along with the related public and private agencies with which they are associated in their holy war against Cuba, risk being isolated even among their friends and would-be admirers, because of the extremism of their preoccupation. Moreover, if it persists in supporting the fringe elements of the anti-communist dissent both within Cuba (via political, material and financial mechanisms) as well as within the EU and UN, Prague could come to be seen as a hysterical lunatic at the head of the Czar’s doomed final cavalry charge.
Prague’s anti-Havana establishment, fostered by former President Havel, now of the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba (ICDC), represents a grievous over-reaction to a tragic Cuban government crackdown in March 2003 on some 75 dissidents, a number of whom unquestionably received funding from U.S. and Czech governmental agencies and NGOs. Some of this funding was financed by Helms-Burton funds, and other official and private sources like the U.S.-funded National Endowment for Democracy (NED). What these officials do not allow for in their analysis of what happened in Cuba on that occasion was that some of these anti-Castro domestic dissenters, many of whom had been purposely whetted into action by the hard-line former head of the U.S. interest section in Havana, James Cason (whose game plan was to use Cuban dissidents as precipitants to calculatedly seek out provocative confrontations with the Cuban authorities).
In the long run, Cason’s zealotry was meant to provide the justification for a new generation of crackdowns on Castro’s Cuba, including further restrictions on trade, travel and cultural activities. The U.S. diplomat breathlessly moved on to the next phase of his career, while his Cuban collaborators ended up serving prison terms. The importance of this State Department initiative was that it came at a time when world public opinion was increasingly rejecting (the UN for the 15th time) the U.S. blockade against Havana as being non-viable. Among the other aims of this strategy was to fortify the Bush administration’s ties to the right-wing side of Miami’s Cuban-American community and its formidable capacity to fund a variety of anti-Castro activities while contributing to Republican candidates.
The Anti-Castro Grouping: Freedom House
Former President Havel is key to turning White House fantasies into reality. Along with an unfortunate capacity for sanctioning “drop-dead” human rights advocacy, Havel craves to be another Jimmy Carter. But Carter communicated with a wide spectrum of island figures and heard out the Cuban leader’s pitch – something that doesn’t even occur to Havel to do. The Havel-dominated ICDC is far from being alone it its machinations. ICDC provides financial support for the opposition in Cuba and works closely with Freedom House, a hard-line, U.S., Cold War-era group which has championed petitions in the UN and other international forums for resolutions against Cuba as well as assists dissidents on the island. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1990s, Freedom House maintained a famously double standard when it came to human rights transgressions by right-wing regimes as contrasted with a much harsher one regarding those of the left. Also within this clutch of ultra groups living off taxpayer funds is the Washington-based Center for a Free Cuba, which has called Czech involvement with Cuba “vital” and regularly circulates ex-party information about Cuba to the media, other NGOs and foreign governments as well as sends supplies to the island.
Other groups that have been linked to the Czech government include the Directorio Democrático Cubano (Cuban Democratic Directorate) in Miami and the Amsterdam-based Cuba Futuro Project. A major Prague-based group is the well-funded People in Need (PIN). PIN has worked to topple the Castro regime by staging protests and dissuading travel to Cuba while fervently supporting the blockade of the island. While officially called an NGO, the group receives funding from the Czech foreign ministry and has been linked to the NED, an organization known for its collaborative ties to the U.S. State Department in the funding of U.S. intelligence initiatives aimed at supporting opposition groups in countries and movements that fall on the wrong side of Washington’s ideological line.
Ramping Up Anti-Castro Rant
In fact, some of these island “dissidents” have fragile credentials behind their claims as being “journalists” or “human rights’ activists,” as they are chronically portrayed. Perhaps they could best be described as specializing in opposing the regime, from the perspective of those who were unemployed, usually as a result of the regime’s retaliation. About 75 denunciados had been jailed after being found guilty in unacceptably brief and inadequate trials, which invariably ended with most of them being sentenced to harsh prison terms. In properly assessing their fate, this particular category of dissidents should be distinguished from another group of equally militant foes of the government who were not detained or arrested. This is because they refused to have liaison with Cason or to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in laundered funds and resources from venomously anti-Castro sources in the Czech Republic or Washington – backdoor funds that over the years have come from USAID or from grantees of the NED.
Dissidents in the former category, who were left unmolested by the government, seemed to abide by a position that they would oppose the regime without any kind of association with U.S. groups or financing, since the U.S. was their country’s primary enemy and it had promoted every conceivable tactic to destroy the Cuban government, including invasion, assassination and economic asphyxiation. As for the ICDC, its members include such venerable cold warriors as former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; past conservative leaders of Chile, Hungary, Nicaragua and Slovakia; Peruvian author Mario Vargas Llosa; and several rightist members of the European Parliament. The ICDC sees as its task the maintenance of solidarity with Cuban dissidents and also works to coordinate a common adversarial approach towards Havana among European and Latin American governments. The ICDC is a political group serving a particular form of hard core anti-left ideology, and the singular motivation and mindset behind its work should be kept in mind.
Prague’s Fine Hand
A large number of Czech-related organizations and agencies work the anti-Cuba beat. One of the key ones is the afore-mentioned Prague-based PIN. One of its main tasks is to fundraise in order to provide aid to financially-strapped families of imprisoned Cuban dissidents as well as unemployed members of the country’s vocal political opposition. It also conducts investigations and sees itself as ready to educate Cubans on the lessons to be extrapolated from the experiences of Eastern European regimes which successfully made the transition to democracy.
“We were also under the same conditions as Cuba,” said Vladimir Bartovic, a Czech student who has collaborated with PIN and traveled to Cuba three times to support the efforts of the dissidents. “We were living in an undemocratic regime [during the communist era]. We have an understanding for the people of Cuba and their living conditions, the inhumanity and the violating of human rights.” Cuban students and representatives who had lived in communist Czechoslovakia as the result of a variety of Eastern-bloc exchange programs, today, in exile, play an important role in stoking the current snarling relations between Prague and Havana, as do their Czech counterparts who were stationed in Cuba during this period. “Czechoslovakia was the second biggest trade partner with Cuba after the Soviet Union,” said Dana Braschová, PIN’s senior program officer for Cuba. “A lot of Czechoslovakians were working in Cuba” she added.
Since Moscow’s collapse, a number of fiercely anti-Castro Czechs have returned to Cuba by various means. Their mission this time was to single-mindedly stir-up Cuban dissidents to oppose Cuban authorities and to hobble Cuba’s standing in the international community. Their initiatives didn’t go unnoticed by Cuban officials, and Havana has proven not reluctant to deter such activities by suppression and by the instant expulsion of “undesirable” foreigners, Czechs among them.
Last May, Cuba expelled several European dignitaries, including Czech senator and former ICDC president Karel Schwarzenberg, after he and the others met with members of the internal Cuban opposition and attempted to attend a national assembly of dissident groups. A longtime proponent of human rights, Schwarzenberg said in a telephone interview that he met with members of the opposition both in Havana and the Cuban countryside. Upon his return to the Cuban capital, local officials ordered him to pack his bags and drove him to the airport. “A day before the conference, they sent me back,” he said.
Why the Czech Republic?
The question remains, why has an admittedly bitter experience under Soviet-bred hegemony has transformed some Czech officials, from President Havel down, into veritable fanatics when it comes to nailing Cuba whenever and wherever external conditions will allow. Almost uniquely of all the countries that once suffered a communist regime (aside from perhaps Slovakia), the Czechs have aggressively adopted the cliché that a convert to Catholicism will tolerate none of the slack frequently found in the behavior of born members of the faith. As a result, the Czech Republic’s anti-Castro hypertrophy adds little to the possibility of a constructive debate concerning Cuba, other than providing a Bush administration-lite quality to the mix. Today, the Czech Republic is principally known internationally, as well as within the EU, for a muscular antipathy towards Castro as the main characteristic of its diplomacy. It brings an almost frighteningly intense degree of faith to a cause it so passionately upholds, meanwhile bringing disrepute upon its chancery for its anti-Castro rants and self-righteousness. Even more so, the particularly murky relationship that Prague has with a number of chest-beating NGOs and U.S.-Cuban exile groups who have demonstrated almost unique skills in raiding the U.S. Treasury for funding their questionable activities and high-life stake, as well as surrogate intelligence agencies like the NED (whose own credentials do not stand up to even casual scrutiny), need a good deal of further examination.
The EU and Cuba
For his part, Senator Schwarzenberg has gathered that while the Czech delegation and other new Central European members of the EU advocate a tougher line on Cuba, they face resistance from other member states, most notably from Spain. Although hardly pro-Castro, Madrid and the Spanish business community, which have heavily invested in Cuba, prefer a softer approach – one of dialogue with Havana rather than assiduously attempting to needle its opponents. In fact, PIN’s director Tomas Pojar has lamented that in spite of the fact that “there are more dissidents than ever in Cuban jails…we are the only European country taking this route [focusing on them].”
Regarding the persistent strand in Prague’s political lexicon to deprecate all things Castro Cuba, the December 2004 statement from the not-entirely-worthy EU Committee on Latin America (COLAT) declared: “The EU Member States, with the active participation of the Czech delegation … have reached a consensus concerning the strengthening of the dialogue and cooperation of the EU with the Cuban opposition.” The informing spirit of the EU’s general statement of principle readily could have been minted by the Bush administration during the epoch when raw ideologues like Otto Reich, Roger Noriega and Caleb McCarry ruled supreme in the Latin American section of the State Department, as well as in relevant congressional sub-committees.
Nevertheless, COLAT, under Spain’s influence, subsequently somewhat softened its harsh anti-Castro stand at the request of influential EU members looking for a more creative, less U.S.-aping Cuba strategy, but that body still continues to display an appalling detachment from regional realities. This depressingly inept level of policy formulation was made evident with EU Development Commissioner Louis Michel’s recent outlandish declaration applauding the Haitian interim government of Prime Minister Gerard Latortue. Michel claimed that “important efforts have been made [in Haiti] with courage and determination.” The only problem with Michel’s intolerably smug statement is that Latortue is otherwise universally seen as a feckless scoundrel – a person of little substance – who, because of the corruption he has sanctioned and the brimming self-esteem which is his marque, has been an unqualified disaster for Haiti. Be it in terms of a police force out of control, a corrupt judiciary, the daily violation of due process, or grossly failing to adequately arrange for the upcoming national elections, Latortue has to be seen as an appalling failure. Where does the EU’s Michel get his evidence for his simply inexcusable declaration?
As for Latortue, apparently the only possible job for which he could present his tattered credentials would be that of EU Development Commissioner where, unfortunately, a vacancy doesn’t appear to exist at the present time. As an indication of the felonious nature of Michel’s sun-rinsed observation, just a few days before his remarks were made, a senior UN official who heads its human rights officials in Haiti went on record as saying that the country’s situation was nothing less than “catastrophic.”
The Czechs in Cuba
Fueling the ongoing bilious debate in Brussels over the EU’s future tack towards Latin America and its future relations with Cuba, the Czech government is pursuing a so-called “soft power” initiative, largely through a year-old office at its Ministry of Foreign Affairs known as the Transitions Promotion office. The new office also endorses democratization efforts in places like Belarus and the former Burma, but with a considerably less shrill voice. According to one of its staff members, Ondrej Kasina, the unit utilizes legal mechanisms such as the production and distribution of literature and the organization of discussions through which it advocates the creation of an open civil society in Cuba to prepare it for an eventual transition to a post-Castro epoch. “They [the islanders] do not have a clear idea of what democracy is and how much responsibility it is … In some situations, it can be a heavy burden,” he said.
Preparing for the Transition
The Czech government’s guiding thesis is that even minimal support for the opposition on the island can stiffen the latter’s resolve. Its staff recalls that Western backing of Czech dissidents during the Cold War – including a famous breakfast meeting with former French President Francois Mitterrand – aided in the demise of communism in Central Europe. And this mission is now being advanced by a number of officials that Czech authorities have seconded from several of its agencies or like-minded NGOs that are barely demarcated from the official line or sector.
Whatever impact outside support of dissidents might have on Cuba’s communist government, Bartovic described a marked change among average Cubans and members of the opposition, even in the period between his visits in December and May. “They are losing the fear in front of the regime,” he said. “Slowly, the people can determine what is true and what isn’t.”
Castro’s opponents have awaited his imminent demise since the 1960s, so predictions for a Cuban transition from Marxist rule to something else are risky at best. Schwarzenberg has described a fractured set of the dissident groups with diverse platforms. Yet he and other Czechs, as well as their government and institutions, whose rabidity on the subject almost makes them seem indifferent to balance and fine tuning, exhibit fatigue when it comes to closely studying the nature of dissidents in Cuba. This is particularly seen in their open alliance and manipulation by U.S. officials like Cason who represent Cuba’s most mortal enemies. It is a fact that many opposing figures – but by no means all – are on the U.S. payroll. These are the ones who are in jail, not for expressing dissent but because they accepted U.S. resources from Cason, a man very much in the stripe of Roger Noriega, Otto Reich and Caleb McCarry, and will resort to any means to suborn Castro rule. In fact, it can be said with some accuracy that the victims are in jail very much because a single-minded ideological warrior like Cason used them as pawns in his career-building strategizing. Nevertheless, to the Czechs, “many people in this country still feel a moral obligation to offer some help,” Kasina said. Nor can they forget that when the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia after the Prague Spring, Cuba was one of the few countries in the world to support Moscow’s harsh repression.