SEVERAL top Slovak representatives have charged Cuba with violating human rights, after the Cuban government detained a number of people accused of conspiring with the US against Fidel Castro's regime.
"These are serious violations of human rights, which cannot be tolerated," said László Nagy, head of Slovakia's parliamentary human-rights committee on April 11, according to the SITA news agency.
"I ask and appeal to all other top state representatives - the president, the government, and parliament - to publicly condemn the action of the Cuban government and stand up to defend the imprisoned Cuban citizens," he said.
"It's not too long since the democratic world spoke out to express solidarity with us and to support our fight for human rights," Nagy added.
Amnesty International (AI) reports that 77 people, possible prisoners of conscience, have been detained in Cuba since March 18. AI reports that those detained include journalists, owners of private libraries, and members of illegal opposition parties, and could face up to 20 years in prison.
For their part, Cuban representatives claim the country is just protecting its national interests against a US-supported effort to undermine its government.
"This group was meeting the representative of the US interest section and no secrets were being made about their activities. Naturally, something had to be done," José García, Chargé d'affaires currently in charge of the Cuban embassy in Slovakia, told The Slovak Spectator.
Slovak representatives do not seem to share this view. Nagy's statement was followed by one issued by the Slovak Foreign Ministry on April 23, and on April 24 speaker of parliament Pavol Hrušovský signed an open letter to Cuba's leader Fidel Castro, requesting the immediate release of Cuban political prisoners.
"Especially here in Slovakia, we cannot keep quiet about practices that suppress human dignity and freedom," Hrušovký said.
Hrušovský is the chairman of the Christian Democratic Movement (KDH), many of whose members were persecuted for their religious beliefs under the communist regime. Christian activists were one of the groups most influential in the fall of the regime in former Czechoslovakia in November 1989.
"This is not the first step taken by Slovak diplomats in this direction," said Boris Gandel, Foreign Ministry spokesperson. "On March 26 we put our names to a statement made by the EU presidency, which condemned the arrests of opposition members in Cuba," he said.
The EU condemnation came after Cuba and the EU seemed to be improving relations. The European Commission officially opened its first diplomatic office in Havana on March 10, only a week before the latest round of arrests started.
Cuban representatives say they see two reasons why Slovakia may be critical of the government in Havana.
"Many countries do not have enough information, while others feel obliged to the US government because they have been promised aid or participation in the post-war reconstruction of Iraq. With all due respect, we are not certain which of the two is true for Slovakia. I would like to believe that it's the first, and I am very cautious about any statements because I do not want to damage our good relations," said García.
Slovakia, a strong supporter of the US both before and during the campaign in the Middle East, has been promised it will play a part in rebuilding Iraq.
García said pressure from Slovakia would make very little difference to the fate of the detained Cubans.
"They were not punished for political reasons, but for specific criminal acts; for collaboration with a hostile country that acts against Cuba. They have their attorneys and they have the right to appeal. They can present arguments in their defence," he said.
It is not clear what steps Slovak diplomats will take if Fidel Castro's regime does not take note of the recent pleas by Slovak politicians.
"Diplomacy is about political gestures and political statements, so we can expect to see more of this. It is not likely that Slovakia will invade Cuba and start freeing political prisoners. That's not possible. Slovakia can point out a bad situation politically, which is what we have done in the few last weeks," said Gandel.
"Relations between Slovakia and Cuba are decent and good. We point out this issue [of human rights] at meetings in the accepted manner, and we have no intention of cutting off relations with Cuba," said Gandel.
Bilateral relations between the countries have a tradition that goes back decades, leading García to comment that "misunderstandings cannot erase the long history of cooperation from the memories of the Cuban people".
"People will vanish but nations go on forever. Cuba will never bite off the hand that fed us. Despite all of this we are very grateful to Slovakia, which has helped Cuba enormously" he said.
Communist Czechoslovakia helped Cuba to build up its infrastructure and industry, as well as providing education and training to many Cubans.
When the US ended diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, the country was represented in the US by the Czechoslovak embassy, where it had its interest section. The interest section closed down in December 1990. Current foreign minister Eduard Kukan served at the Slovak embassy in Washington from 1977 to 1981.
However, Slovak diplomats are not the only people in the country trying to encourage the Cuban government to be more mindful of human-rights issues.
Amnesty International sends letters signed by people from around the globe to governments suspected of detaining prisoners of conscience or other breaches of human rights.
"We send out letters to AI members around Slovakia and then they collect signatures. In the best cases we managed to get between 600 and 800 signatures," said Barbora Černušáková, head of AI in Slovakia.
"Slovakia will have a better chance of improving things once it becomes an EU member and can influence policy making in the union," she added.
5. May 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila