Czechs force EU hand on Cuba

In their first foreign-policy victory since joining the EU, Czech officials in Brussels have blocked a proposed ban on inviting Cuban dissidents to receptions at European embassies in Havana.

The ban would have suspended a 2003 resolution that called on EU countries to support anti-Castro dissidents by inviting them to parties celebrating national holidays.

Spain proposed the ban as part of a package of measures, including the resumption of EU missions to Cuba, designed to ease tensions with Havana. It became a sticking point when the Czechs threatened to use their veto in the 25-member Council of Foreign Ministers, where unanimity is required on policy decisions.

The “Cocktail Wars,” as one paper dubbed them, ended Jan. 31 when Foreign Minister Cyril Svoboda convinced other ministers to remove the ban during a closed-door lunch.

“I consider this an unequivocal success,” Svoboda later told reporters.

Debate over the ban touched a nerve here, where many former dissidents entered politics after communism fell in 1989.

Former dissident-turned-president Vaclav Havel wrote in the Jan. 28 edition of the French newspaper Le Figaro, “I can hardly imagine a better way for the EU to spit on [its] principles. … We will start discriminating against free-thinking people.”

A source at the foreign ministry in Spain played down the dispute. “We want to continue working with opposition in Cuba, but the old measures weren’t working,” he said.

The EU adopted sanctions in 2003 after Cuban leader Fidel Castro imprisoned 75 dissidents. Europeans began inviting free dissidents to receptions, and Havana froze ties to the embassies.

Since last fall, when Spain broached the subject of repealing sanctions, Havana resumed contact with the embassies — including the Czech Embassy — and released 14 prisoners. Spanish officials said that Castro might relax his grip on free speech to a greater extent if Europe resumed diplomatic missions to Havana and stopped hosting dissidents at receptions.

“Considering our totalitarian past, it was unacceptable for us to accept limitations on contact with people who are fighting for democracy,” Svoboda told reporters.

In the end, diplomatic missions were resumed and invitations to dissidents were left up to individual member countries. The EU is scheduled to review its Cuba policy in July.

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