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EU and Cuba: Freedom vs. appeasement

By Václav Havel | Project Syndicate

Posted on Fri, Jan. 28, 2005 | I vividly remember the slightly ludicrous, slightly risqué and somewhat distressing predicament in which Western diplomats in Prague found themselves during the Cold War. They regularly needed to resolve the delicate issue of whether to invite to their embassy celebrations various Charter 77 signatories, human-rights activists, critics of the communist regime, displaced politicians, or even banned writers, scholars and journalists -- people with whom the diplomats were generally friends.

Sometimes we dissidents were not invited, but received an apology, and sometimes we were invited, but did not accept the invitation so as not to complicate the lives of our courageous diplomat friends. Or we were invited to come at an earlier hour in the hope that we would leave before the official representatives arrived, which sometimes worked and sometimes didn't. When it didn't, either the official representatives left in protest at our presence, or we left hurriedly, or we all pretended not to notice each other, or -- albeit on rare occasions -- we started to converse with each other, which frequently were the only moments of dialogue between the regime and the opposition (not counting our courthouse encounters).

`Dissidents or trade'

This all happened when the Iron Curtain divided Europe -- and the world -- into opposing camps. Western diplomats had their countries' economic interests to consider, but, unlike the Soviet side, they took seriously the idea of ''dissidents or trade.'' I cannot recall any occasion at that time when the West or any of its organizations (NATO, the European Community, etc.) issued some public appeal, recommendation or edict stating that some specific group of independently minded people -- however defined -- were not to be invited to diplomatic parties, celebrations or receptions.

But today this is happening. One of the strongest and most powerful democratic institutions in the world -- the European Union -- has no qualms in making a public promise to the Cuban dictatorship that it will re-institute diplomatic Apartheid. The EU's embassies in Havana will now craft their guest lists in accordance with the Cuban government's wishes. The shortsightedness of socialist Prime Minister José Zapatero of Spain has prevailed.

Try to imagine what will happen: At each European embassy, someone will be appointed to screen the list, name by name, and assess whether and to what extent the persons in question behave freely or speak out freely in public, to what extent they criticize the regime, or even whether they are former political prisoners. Lists will be shortened and deletions made, and this will frequently entail eliminating even good personal friends of the diplomats in charge of the screening, people whom they have given various forms of intellectual, political or material assistance. It will be even worse if the EU countries try to mask their screening activities by inviting only diplomats to embassy celebrations in Cuba.

I can hardly think of a better way for the EU to dishonor the noble ideals of freedom, equality and human rights that the Union espouses -- indeed, principles that it reiterates in its constitutional agreement. To protect European corporations' profits from their Havana hotels, the Union will cease inviting open-minded people to EU embassies, and we will deduce who they are from the expression on the face of the dictator and his associates. It is hard to imagine a more shameful deal.

Cuba's dissidents will, of course, happily do without Western cocktail parties and polite conversation at receptions. This persecution will admittedly aggravate their difficult struggle, but they will naturally survive it. The question is whether the EU will survive it.

Today, the EU is dancing to Fidel Castro's tune. That means that tomorrow it could bid for contracts to build missile bases on the coast of the People's Republic of China. The following day it could allow its decisions on Chechnya to be dictated by Russian President Vladimir Putin's advisors. Then, for some unknown reason, it could make its assistance to Africa conditional on fraternal ties with the worst African dictators.

Where will it end? The release of Milosevic? Denying a visa to Russian human-rights activist Sergey Kovalyov? An apology to Saddam Hussein? The opening of peace talks with al Qaeda?

Coexistence with dictators

It is suicidal for the EU to draw on Europe's worst political traditions, the common denominator of which is the idea that evil must be appeased and that the best way to achieve peace is through indifference to the freedom of others.

Just the opposite is true: Such policies expose an indifference to one's own freedom and pave the way for war. After all, Europe is uniting to defend its freedom and values, not to sacrifice them to the ideal of harmonious coexistence with dictators and thus risk gradual infiltration of its soul by the anti-democratic mind-set.

I firmly believe that the new members of the EU will not forget their experience of totalitarianism and nonviolent opposition to evil, and that that experience will be reflected in how they behave in EU bodies. Indeed, this could be the best contribution that they can make to the common spiritual, moral and political foundations of a united Europe.

Václav Havel is former president of the Czech Republic.

©2005 Project Syndicate



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