07-02-2001

The return home of two prominent Czechs from Cuba has resulted in a storm of media publicity. It's rare for anyone to get this kind of welcome from the press. More than 50 reporters jostled for snapshots and interviews at Ruzyne Airport on Tuesday night, and the result is an unprecedented amount of human interest stories, analysis and interviews. "Castro's prisoners come home" reads an extra large headline on the front page of Lidove Noviny. "Six full pages on the Cuban drama" boasts Mlada Fronta Dnes, which carries an outsize snapshot of MP Ivan Pilip hugging his infant son.

The drama is over - analysts say -now let's talk about the winners and the losers. "He who laughs last laughs loudest, and in this case it's Fidel Castro" says Milan Vodicka in today's Mlada Fronta Dnes. He used the two Czechs in order to isolate Cuban dissidents - who would risk meeting them after this? - and then, he showed a magnanimous face to the world to boost his own image.

Senator Michal Zantovsky, who has an article in the paper, says there IS one positive aspect - for the Czech side. "It is encouraging to have seen that the authorities fought a hard battle to get Czech nationals out of Cuba and that their strategy was good."

Lidove Noviny points out that on home ground the Cuban drama acquired a new political dimension. Whom did the Cuban crisis weaken and whom did it strengthen politically? asks Lidove Noviny. The two politicians who have gained the most points on the home scene are Senate Chairman Petr Pithart, whose mission is believed to have been of crucial importance for the prisoners' release, and Ivan Pilip himself who, having established himself as a devoted human rights activist, can now go on to bigger and better things within the Four Party Coalition, which he represents as an MP in the Lower House of Parliament. "Pilip for Prime Minister, Pithart for President?" reads a Lidove Noviny headline.

The current Senate Chairman is considered to be Vaclav Klaus' most serious rival for the post of Czech President, when Vaclav Havel's term in office expires in two years' time. And analysts agree that this round has certainly gone to Mr Pithart.

"This moral victory has visibly increased Petr Pithart's chances of becoming the next Czech president, says Jiri Pehe in today's Pravo. While Mr Pithart did not hesitate to put his personal and political credit on the line and opened himself to possible humiliation from a dictator in order to save two Czech nationals, Mr Klaus, who did not lift a finger to help the detainees, came across as a mean and petty rival, who not only criticized Pithart's mission, but lectured the nation on how the government should have used standard diplomatic channels to try to resolve the crisis. The manner in which the two men approached this crisis is revealing of how they would act in office, Pehe notes.

It is rare that political analysts agree on anything, but in this case the papers are full of ridicule for Vaclav Klaus and full of praise for Petr Pithart.

However, paradoxically, it appears that Vaclav Klaus may claim a tiny part of the victory. According to Lidove Noviny, which in turn cites a source close to Brazilian diplomats, who were actively involved in the case, Fidel Castro was so outraged by Vaclav Klaus' dismissive comments about the significance of his meeting with the Chairman of the Czech Senate, that he ordered the prisoners to be freed several days sooner than he had originally intended. Whether or not this is really true is hard to say. What is perfectly clear is that Vaclav Klaus will have a very hard time living down this fiasco. "It is lucky for Pilip and Bubenik that it was Petr Pithart who flew to Havana for talks with the Cuban leader", says Lidove Noviny's Martin Zverina. Had it been Vaclav Klaus, the two Czechs might have been stuck in jail for years."

07-02-2001