05-02-2001

One only needs to glance at a newsstand to see that the Czech-Cuban "detainee crisis" has pushed all other stories out of the limelight. Virtually all the papers have devoted two to three full pages to the problem, featuring reports, analysis and interviews. Headlines such as "Cuba sets out to humiliate one-time ally", "Pithart mission fails" and " Castro accuses Czech embassy of espionage" reveal that the growing tension in Czech-Cuban relations ever since the overthrow of communism in Europe, has now reached breaking point.

Political analysts argue about how the detainee-crisis should have been handled and whether the Czech Republic did well to let itself be publicly humiliated by the unpredictable Cuban leader. "It was worth a try " says Lidove Noviny's Martin Zverina, of the Pithart mission. "Dealing with dictators is always difficult, but when there is the slightest chance of resolving an issue as vital as this, then it must be attempted" Zverina says.

Not so, says Jaroslav Jiru of Mlada Fronta Dnes in an editorial entitled "Castro's great triumph". Jiru claims that although Mr Pithart is an honourable and brave man - the idea of sending him on this mission to Cuba was totally misguided. It should have been clear to the foreign ministry from the start that Castro's intention was public humiliation and exemplary punishment. There was no question at all that Mr Pithart would be forced to return empty handed. In its amateurism, the ministry simply played into Castro's hands, taking the proffered role in his little scenario.

The misconception that an honest politician can achieve something good by talking to a dictator goes back a long way, the author continues. In the thirties Western leaders were convinced that "personal contact" with Hitler would could keep him on a leash. Former US president Roosevelt made the same mistake with Stalin. The mistake politicians repeatedly make when dealing with dictators is that they expect them to respond to reasoning and react as they themselves would. Dictators have a different code of behavior with a single priority: the strategic interests of their countries. If the Czech Foreign Ministry had recognized this simple fact, it could have spared itself a great deal of humiliation and not helped Castro obtain the publicity he was obviously after, Jiru concludes.

Former dissident and human rights activist Petr Uhl sees things slightly differently. Mr Uhl has long advocated the view that the American embargo on Cuba is highly counter productive, and basically grist to the mill of fundamentalists of Castro's type. "The Czechs are too small an opponent for Cuba to bother with," Uhl says. "What Castro is lashing out at is the embargo, the anti-communist policy of George Bush, as opposed to the anti-communist policy of Bill Clinton".

The Cuban leader has certainly achieved what he set out to do, Uhl continues, but in the end, the publicity and diplomatic contacts will work against him. Over the past few days, Czechs have learnt more about Cuba than they did in the past ten years - and not just about the human rights situation on the island. Fidel Castro may not realize this, but negotiations with foreign officials and information about the true state of affairs on the island open the way to a bloodless transition to democracy, and an end to the dictatorship that Castro personifies. We need only look at our own recent history to realize that any kind of political dialogue, any kind of economic and cultural contacts hastened the demise of the communist regime. Even a simple exchange of information is a potent weapon, the author concludes.

05-02-2001