Czechs foster anti-communist dissidence with their aid policy
Prague was probably the last place on the minds of three Cuban families when they set out from their island home on a rickety boat in 2005.
But, late last month, Prague is where they ended their year-and-a-half-long ordeal in search of a new life. They are the first Cubans ever to be granted asylum in the Czech Republic, a move that further solidifies the Czech Republic’s harshly critical stance toward Fidel Castro’s communist regime.
The families’ journey started with a treacherous boat trip across the Straits of Florida, where they were intercepted by the U.S. Coast Guard. Then back to Cuba to a U.S.-operated facility at Guantanamo Bay, where they waited for a country — any country — to accept their plea for asylum. After more than a year, that answer finally came from halfway around the world, in Central Europe. On March 20, the 10 men, women and children boarded a plane and flew to their new homes in Prague.
The families are eager to build a new home here, said Interior Ministry spokesman Petr Vorlíček.
“They are cheerful and optimistic. In the short term, learning Czech is a main priority,” he said. “In the long run, they would like to find jobs and the children want to get an education.”
Personal details are tightly under wraps, because the families fear reprisals against friends and relatives back in Cuba. They declined to be interviewed or photographed. What is known is that two of the families have children under 18, and one family has an infant son.
“All three families decided to leave Cuba because of persecution due to their political or religious beliefs,” Vorlíček said. For some, this had been their fourth attempt to flee. Because of their parents’ involvement in dissidence, the children were bullied and prevented from going to school in Cuba, he said.
Besides language difficulties, they’re also adjusting to the markedly less tropical climate. But they’re also eager about the quality of health care and education here, and the relative freedom with which they can live their lives.
It’s no coincidence that the Czech government reached out to these particular families.
Under communism, Cuba and Czechoslovakia shared close ties. But since the 1989 revolution that ended communism here, a revolution largely fueled by the dissident movement, Czechs have increasingly angered the Cuban regime by supporting dissidence there. Diplomatic relations in recent years have been tense, and the Czech Republic is one of the strongest voices in the European Union lobbying for a tougher stance against Cuban leader Fidel Castro.
“We feel we have a similar experience with a communist regime. We hope we will also have a similar experience of transition out of communism,” said Jiří Knitl, head of Cuban projects at Prague-based human rights group People In Need.
Whatever bickering goes on within the government, “I think there’s a consensus in our foreign policy against Cuba,” he said.
“Human rights are a very important priority for the Czech Republic,” and Cuba is one of the main focuses of that, said Džamila Stehlíková, minister in charge of human rights issues.
The initiative to grant asylum to more Cubans would have to come from within the Interior and Foreign Ministries, but she would welcome making this an ongoing trend, she said.
So, too, would the Cuban exile community in the U.S.
“The Czech Republic is setting a very good example,” said Omar Lopez, human rights director at the Cuban American National Foundation. The Miami-based group lobbies against Castro’s regime. “It’s very difficult to get countries to give asylum to Cubans.”
Nearby countries, like those in the Caribbean and Central America, are afraid they would become overloaded with asylum claimants, and some also fear reprisals from the Cuban government, he said.
“[Central] and East European countries have the experience of communism. They know what it’s like to risk your life for freedom,” Lopez said.
Home sweet home
The situation of these three families was the best-case scenario, said William Spindler, spokesman at the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Geneva. Because the Czech government offered asylum, a “bilateral agreement” was reached with the United States without the need for UNHCR intervention, he said.
Under the agreement, the U.S. government will pay for the families’ costs for six months before the Czech Republic takes over. The city of Prague will receive federal subsidies to provide housing, said Jiří Janeček, city councilor in charge of social issues.
Prague is a marked change from their most recent home: a barrack-style migrant center at Guantanamo Bay. Individuals intercepted at sea — mostly Cubans, but occasionally Haitians too — are sent to the facility (which is separate from the famed detention center) if U.S. authorities decide they have a legitimate claim for political asylum. Then it’s a waiting game, with some waiting up to two years, said U.S. State Department official Peter Eisenhauer.
Of the nearly 8,000 Cubans nabbed by the U.S. Coast Guard last year, 99 percent were sent back to Cuba, Eisenhauer said.
To the people making that attempt, it’s worth the risks, Lopez said.
“It comes down to freedom,” he said. “Simple as that.”
— Naďa Černá contributed to this report.