At Berlin Conference, 26 April, 2007
It is fair to say that we have seen no progress in Cuba over the past few months. The regime proved capable of surviving and retaining all the attributes that have characterized it in the past forty-eight years. The recent developments on the island have been a disappointment and all optimistic expectations proved wrong. I would like to point out that this is not just an isolated view of the Czech Republic. At least the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland perceive the situation the same way. There are no improvements on the ground. There might be fewer political prisoners (Note. According to data provided by Cuban opposition, there were 283 in January 2007, which is 50 persons fewer compared to 2006. It is estimated that during the monitored period, about 75 prisoners were released and 25 others arrested.), but in essence the regime remains the same, still lacking the least political will to engage in critical self-reflection.
I am sure that we in the EU share a common goal, which is to encourage Cuba’s transition to a pluralist democracy stemming from the will of the Cuban people, from their own free choice. However, the question is how to achieve this common European goal, and here we tend to differ greatly. So much, indeed, that our disputes on this issue take up much of the energy that would be better spent working towards the common goal. What we need is to establish the lowest common denominator – a set of points, which we all accept and on which we can build.
The Czech Republic does not reject dialogue between EU Member States and the Cuban government; however, the dialogue cannot be tied to any preliminary terms and conditions dictated by the Cuban government, and there can be no exceptions. It is hard to take seriously Cuba’s stated resolve to enter into dialogue on human rights, when one sees Cuban authorities a priori refusing to discuss the fates of unjustly imprisoned people. All they do is label these people criminal elements and forget about them. What is more, they shamelessly use every opportunity to impress on the international community that every manifestation of free or unwelcome opinion on the island is the work of terrorists, or at least of reformist charlatans and ideological mercenaries.
It is necessary to continue calling for the release of all, and I mean all, political prisoners in Cuba, and to strongly protest, everywhere, whenever we have the chance, against political chicanery and intimidation. And we should do so without any conditions, without any selection. I have no doubt that this is one thing on which we, Europeans, can agree.
Recent Czech history has taught us that manifestations of support coming from official representatives of democratic countries are an enormous boost to the opposition. Like the communists in former Czechoslovakia, the Cuban regime treats dissidents as second-rate citizens. We must not accept such labelling. For the Czech Republic, dialogue with the opposition, whether in Cuba or anywhere else in the world, is normal and legitimate, and not something out of the norm.
The Cuban regime is using time-proven methods against its opposition – to divide, to discredit one in the eyes of others, to offer concessions to the chosen few, in short to set the dissidents against each other. And it uses similar methods when dealing with the EU. It should be openly said that, regrettably, this Cuban policy is bearing fruit and that differences on the Cuban issue still persist within the Union.
We do not want to advise Cubans which path to choose, this should be their decision. But to make the decision, they need to have access to free information. Indeed, restriction of free and democratic access to information is one of the hallmarks of the Cuban regime. It would be fair to let Cubans learn not only about our successes, but also about the mistakes we made when dismantling the communist regime in our part of Europe. And this is where the European Union has great, but so far unexploited potential. Uncensored information can be spread through embassies, through internet or information centres created for this purpose, or by publishing and distributing books and supporting independent libraries.
Finally, I would like to mention that in my country the first free democratic elections held after the fall of the communist regime were not a multiparty competition in a traditional sense. In the very first phase following the fall of communism, there were essentially two major political blocks in the country. The first, represented by the Communist Party, comprised the political entities of the past and promoted ideas based on conservative communist agenda. The second, represented by the Civic Forum, united the majority of pro-democratic forces and vigorously advocated the principles of democracy, good governance and rule of law. The first free elections in Czechoslovakia were thus more of a referendum on getting rid of the communist regime, by opting for one of the two political blocks. The rise of political parties and standard competition for power came later. The democratic forces in Czechoslovakia won overwhelmingly in those first free elections, just like in most of post-communist countries where the voters where presented with a clear choice. Therefore, the first necessary step for opposition leaders is always to unite forces and work towards one common goal, which is to overthrow the dictatorship. Of course this requires a great deal of political broad-mindedness and foresight. Once the first free democratic elections are safely over, everybody will have enough time to express their views regarding the future political system, to win support for their ideas and to gain a share of power. But in the beginning they all need the one chance that opens the door.