By VACLAV HAVEL
Project Syndicate, March 11, 2008
PRAGUE — Five years ago, the European Union was on the verge of fulfilling one of the aspirations of the Velvet Revolutions that swept across Central and Eastern Europe by expanding from 15 to 25 members through the accession of several post-communist states. Yet, while the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain may have fallen into the dustbin of history, others vestiges of the Soviet era remain firmly in place. Certain areas of the world have been transformed for the better, even as others have been suspended in time to fend for themselves. One place that has not changed is Cuba, despite Fidel Castro's decision to retire and hand the reigns of power over to his brother Raul.
On March 18, five years ago, Castro's government cracked down on the Varela Project and other civil society initiatives rather than risk allowing a spark of democratic reform to spread across Cuba as it had in the former Soviet bloc. The 75 prisoners of conscience locked up were dissidents, independent journalists, leaders from civil society, and librarians, who had dared to speak the truth openly about what life is like in Cuba. Even though seven prisoners have recently been released, 52 of the 75 remain incarcerated in deplorable conditions. In general, the only reason that any of these prisoners were freed was because of how seriously their health had deteriorated.
Given how central the values of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law are in Europe, we feel it is our obligation to speak out against such injustices continuing unchecked. Less than 20 years ago there were political prisoners on the E.U.'s borders who were denied the basic rights of freedom of speech and expression, lived in constant fear of being denounced, and dreamed about enjoying what Europeans in the "West" took for granted.
Cuba's regime has remained in power, the same ways that communist governments did in the former Yugoslavia, Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania — the last three as part of the Soviet Union — by using propaganda, censorship, and violence to create a climate of fear. Likewise, the solidarity that was expressed by those outside of these countries helped bring about the changes.
Cuba is the only country in the Western Hemisphere that has not embraced democracy and continues to repress all forms of political dissent. Today, Cuba is closer to making genuine democratic changes due to sacrifices made by dissidents and activists inspired by how other parts of the world have been transformed since the end of the Cold War.
We believe that the former communist Central and Eastern European countries are in a unique position to support the democracy movements in Cuba based on the similarities of their histories and experiences. Our intentions in pushing for democratization are based on friendship and cooperation, good will, and an understanding of the needs, expectations, and hopes of Cuban people.
We, the undersigned, believe that the E.U., as one of the driving forces in international politics, needs to speak out in unison against governments oppressing their own citizens. The E.U. should denounce human rights violations in Cuba and call for the immediate release of all prisoners of conscience. The ministers of foreign affairs from all E.U. member states should send a demarche on March 18 to their Cuban counterpart demanding their release as well.
The actions taken or not taken by the Cuban government should be used as a benchmark when the European Council reviews the E.U.'s Common Position on Cuba in June. Lastly, the E.U. should continue actively supporting peaceful democratic movements and civil society organizations in Cuba by taking advantage of the intrinsic knowledge some of its member states have about making a transition to democracy.
Five years ago the dream of several former Soviet satellites being members of the E.U. was becoming a reality. Dissidents and those committed to the spread of democracy had made this possible. The time has come for us to repay that debt by helping those in Cuba, whose dreams have already been deferred for too long.
Mr. Havel is a former president of the Czech Republic. Other authors of this article are: Ferenc Köszeg, Hungarian Helsinki Committee; Rexhep Meidani, former president of Albania; Vytautas Landsbergis, Lithuanian MEP and former president; Milan Kucan, former president of Slovenia; Mart Laar, former prime minister of Estonia; Kim Campbell, former prime minister of Canada; André Glucksmann, philosopher; José Ribeiro e Castro, Portuguese MEP; Edward McMillan-Scott, British member of the European Parliament; and Leszek Balcerowicz, former president of the Bank of Poland. All are European based members of the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba. © 2008 Project Syndicate.