Cuban authorities have allowed two prominent Czechs to leave the country after they spent 25 days in detention for meeting with Cuban dissidents. The Czechs were expected back in Prague later this evening. RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports the decision to release former Czech Finance Minister Ivan Pilip and Velvet Revolution student activist Jan Bubenik is the culmination of weeks of diplomatic activity.
Prague, 6 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Shortly before midnight last night (Havana time) Czech parliamentarian Ivan Pilip and student-leader-turned-businessman Jan Bubenik boarded a Boeing 747 at Havana airport and took off for Europe.
Some nine hours later the two spoke to Czech public radio while changing planes in Madrid. Pilip said they knew before they left for Cuba they risked arrest.
"We were aware of the risk [that we could be arrested], but we didn't calculate just how far the Cuban side was prepared to go. It indicated that it was prepared to go incredibly far. I have to say that until the very last moment, when we received the information two or three hours before our departure [from Cuba], we did not know whether we would be in Cuba for 25 days or 25 years."
In the words of Anders Johnsson of the Inter-Parliamentary Union, who was in the Cuban capital for a week trying to secure the release of the two, "they are not being expelled, they are leaving as tourists." The IPU is an umbrella organization of 140 parliaments.
But before they could leave, the two signed a statement apologizing to the Cuban people for having unwittingly violated Cuban laws.
That marks a notable concession for Cuba, which almost four weeks ago seized the two amid much fanfare as "counterrevolutionary agents" who, if convicted, faced up to 20 years in prison.
The Czech speaker of the Senate, Petr Pithart, spent five days in Havana negotiating the men's release, culminating in six hours of discussions with President Fidel Castro over the past weekend. Pithart says the release was no surprise.
"The course of those five days and especially the last conversation assured me that it was imminent. I had no proof, but I counted on my intuition and it worked out. I can't imagine that after everything, all the delays and the long conversation with Fidel Castro, that it would have ended any other way."
The other released detainee, Jan Bubenik, told Czech radio today that Pithart, the Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation, and family members who visited them daily in prison were all important in gaining their release.
"We think that the presence of our families in Cuba was for us psychologically of key importance. I would also emphasize that we met Pithart three times. His mission and the mission of the Inter-Parliamentary Union definitely played a key role in our release."
The older of the two detained Czechs, Pilip, speaks fluent Spanish and served in previous Czech governments. He was education minister under Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus and, after he and several other ministers had a falling out with Klaus, Pilip served as finance minister in the caretaker government of Josef Tosovsky.
Pilip had traveled to Cuba in the past, but it was Bubenik's first visit. Rather than sun himself on the beach, Pilip spent his time in the country visiting dissident activists, apparently in conjunction with a U.S. non-governmental human rights organization, Freedom House.
Business travelers to Cuba say they are routinely required to hand over their laptop computers on arrival and are given a receipt to pick them up on departure. Pilip and Bubenik were detained with a laptop and an electronic personal organizer, which may well have contained databases of their dissident contacts.
The real outcome, however, was that Cuba picked a fight with the Czech Republic from which it expected to reap propaganda benefits, but from which it appears to have gained little, if anything.
Cuban officials detained the two on 12 January in the central province of Ciego de Avila and transferred them to Havana, while keeping them isolated from Czech diplomats. But after that, the officials made one concession after another.
First, they improved the conditions in the Havana jail. Then they allowed family members to travel to Cuba and visit the men daily. Prosecutors had originally sought a trial on charges of "engaging in activities against the security of the state with the aim of inciting a rebellion [by] working on missions assigned to them in the United States by the counterrevolutionary Freedom House." If convicted under such charges, the two men would have likely faced a prison sentence of 20 years. But the prosecutors eventually reduced the charges to simply threatening Cuba's economic interests, which carries a maximum jail sentence of eight years.
The Cuban Foreign Ministry alleged that Freedom House had given the two Czechs a list of names and a cash advance of $1,400 to cover accommodations, car rentals, and meals, and provided them with a laptop computer and discs to be handed over to the people they would meet in Cuba.
Cuban officials repeatedly angered the Czech government by circumventing the Czech Foreign Ministry and using the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia to leak information about the state of the case. In addition, Havana demanded an official apology, something Prague dismissed as out of the question since Pilip and Bubenik had been travelling as private citizens.
The president of the European Commission, Romano Prodi, the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly and several governments -- including those of the U.S., Sweden, Germany, and Slovakia -- had called on Cuba to release the two Czechs.
As an example of how low bilateral relations had sunk, on Jan 26 Cuban state television aired a conversation between Castro and the charge d'affaires at the Cuban embassy in Prague. During the call, Castro called on the embassy's staff to be prepared to lay down their lives: "in the event of extraordinary need" -- that is, if the embassy were to come under attack, a highly unlikely possibility in Prague today. In recent years, the Czech embassy in Havana has been repeatedly targeted by officially organized demonstrations protesting Prague's pro-human rights policies toward Cuba.
In the course of a six-hour speech that ended early last Saturday (3 February), Castro denounced Czech policy toward Cuba over the last 10 years. He accused the Czech embassy in Havana of conspiracy. But he added: "We do not feel hate nor do we want revenge."
Castro said Cuban authorities told Pilip and Bubenik: "Appeal to our generosity and don't resort to lies and pressures. Do not test our firmness. Admit that our proof is real. Offer our people an apology. There has to be an apology."
In Prague, Czech Prime Minister Milos Zeman said he saw no reason for a governmental apology. Zeman said: "The Czech government did not send Pilip and Bubenik, and we do not know the exact nature of the accusations."
Meanwhile, Pilip and Bubenik, who had been kept in separate jail cells, were allowed to meet and draw up an apology of their own.
Castro then had his long meeting with Czech Senate speaker Pithart, spending most of the time discussing various aspects of Czech and Cuban history before Pithart was eventually able to appeal for the release of the two men. On Sunday (4 February), Pithart flew back to Prague.
The speaker of the Czech lower house of parliament, Vaclav Klaus -- who has made no secret of his dislike for Pithart and Pilip -- yesterday dismissed Pithart's trip to Cuba. Klaus said it had what he called "zero" effect and had raised exaggerated hopes.
Pithart responded today by saying the case of the two Czechs in Cuba has been "considerably misused" for domestic political purposes. "It is some sort of Czech disease that we simply do not know how to look at things from a purely human point of view."