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Czech Republic: Cuba's Arrest Of Czechs Causes Uproar In Prague

Cuba's arrest last week of a Czech politician and a democracy activist has further soured relations between two former allies. Cuban authorities say former Finance Minister Ivan Pilip, a Czech parliament deputy, and Jan Bubenik, an ex-student leader of Czechoslovakia's "Velvet Revolution," will be put on trial for "attempting to establish subversive contacts" at the behest of the United States. The U.S. has condemned the arrests, and the Czech government -- in strongly worded diplomatic protests -- has demanded the release of its citizens. Cuba has not responded. RFE/RL correspondent Jeremy Bransten looks at the case.

Prague, 19 January 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Cuban police detained Ivan Pilip and Jan Bubenik in the central province of Ciego de Avila last Friday. The two arrived in Cuba three days before on tourist visas, but Havana authorities say instead of sunning themselves on the beach, Pilip and Bubenik were meeting counter-revolutionary groups, giving them instructions and handing over material support.

In a statement issued shortly after their detention, Cuban authorities said Pilip and Bubenik would be tried before a tribunal as foreign agents acting on behalf of the U.S.-based Freedom House organization. Freedom House, a Washington-based NGO founded in 1941 to monitor human rights and promote open societies, issued a statement condemning the arrests. The statement says Freedom House "stands in solidarity" with Pilip and Bubenik for their democracy advocacy.

Freedom House Executive Director Jennifer Windsor, contacted by RFE/RL, refused to comment on the Cuban authorities' accusation that the two men were acting on instructions from the organization.

According to the Cuban Commission for Human Rights and National Reconciliation -- an independent association grouping opponents to the Castro regime -- the Czechs met activists Antonio Femenias and Roberto Valdivia.

Femenias, a dissident journalist who works outside Cuba's state-controlled media, and Valdivia, of the Cuban Committee for Human Rights, were also called in for questioning. The head of the rights commission, Elizardo Sanchez, said both denied receiving money or materials from the Czechs.

Pilip, who speaks Spanish, visited Cuba once before in recent years and met with dissidents. Bubenik was on his first visit to the island.

It now appears increasingly likely Pilip and Bubenik will face trial instead of immediate expulsion as usually happens when Cuba apprehends foreigners meeting with dissidents.

Cuban-Czech ties have been deteriorating ever since the 1989 "Velvet Revolution" swept Czech communist leaders from power. Prague's co-sponsorship of an initiative at the United Nations last year condemning Cuba's human rights record brought relations to a low point.

Josef Opatrny, a professor of Latin American studies at Charles University in Prague, says Pilip and Bubenik ended up at the wrong place at the wrong time. They are now likely to serve as useful pawns in Cuban leader Fidel Castro's retribution campaign.

Opatrny says it is almost certain Pilip's previous trip had been carefully monitored and Cuban authorities chose their moment strategically:

"Dissidents are always carefully monitored [by the authorities]. You know that in the dissident movement in our country, there were people who worked for both sides. And it's the same with Cuban dissidents. I think the Cuban authorities are pretty well informed about all these activities."

The fact that relations between the former Czechoslovakia and Cuba were so close for many decades -- closer than among many other Socialist states -- makes the fallout between Prague and Havana all the more venomous. Castro sees recent Czech outspokenness against his regime as a personal betrayal and that is why Pilip and Bubenik are being accorded such harsh treatment, according to Opatrny.

"I think current relations between Cuba and the Czech Republic are worse than ties between Cuba and Hungary, let's say, because before 1989 they were really better."

Opatrny says Pilip's and Bubenik's arrests serve Castro in two ways, but determining which motive prevailed is hard to judge.

"I don't know whether it was prompted by internal events -- if the Cubans wanted to send a signal to their own dissidents to be careful about contacts with foreigners or to warn them not to overstep certain limits -- or if it was an action aimed at the outside world to warn that Cuba will not tolerate contacts by people it considers to be the enemies with Cuban inhabitants."

The fact that Pilip and Bubenik were branded as U.S. agents has led commentators to speculate that Castro may try to exchange the two for five Cubans being tried in the U.S. on charges of espionage. But this theory remains unproven. More will become clear if and when the two Czechs are tried.

What is clear is that the Czech Republic doesn't have much leverage in Cuba these days. Czech President Vaclav Havel has offered to help in trying to secure the men's release. But while he enjoys respect around the world, the former dissident won't likely have much influence on Castro. Opatrny says some independent organization might be found to act as a go-between.

"Maybe it would be better to hand this case over to an NGO because, as I've said, at the government level it's hard to imagine worse bilateral ties than exist at the present moment. To be precise, they could be worse -- but not by much."

The Catholic Church has offered its assistance and may hold the key, as ties between Castro and Pope John Paul have improved in recent years. Paradoxically, the Czech Communist Party -- whose leaders still maintain ties to the island's leadership -- could also try to win Pilip's and Bubenik's release, seeing the case as an opportunity to improve its image.