The Washington Post
Sunday, February 4, 2001 ; Page A27

Envoy Fails to Free 2 Czechs in Cuba

By Pascal Fletcher

HAVANA, Feb. 3 -- A senior Czech official failed to win the release of two prominent compatriots arrested in Cuba for meeting Cuban dissidents and was heading
home tonight after lengthy talks with President Fidel Castro.

Despite the setback, Czech Senate President Petr Pithart told reporters he believed his six hours of frank talks with the Cuban leader had made a "useful"
contribution to ongoing efforts to resolve the sensitive case.

Pithart had been in Communist-ruled Cuba since Monday on a mission to seek the release of former Czech Finance Minister Ivan Pilip and ex-student leader Jan
Bubenik, who were arrested on Jan. 12 under charges of holding "subversive contacts" with Cuban opposition activists.

"We are leaving tonight for London but without Messrs. Pilip and Bubenik," Pithart said. "We have concluded that my mission has been useful and has helped
towards resolving the case," he said.

Pithart said that in his talks with Castro and Cuban National Assembly President Ricardo Alarcon both sides had committed themselves to "continuing to do
everything possible to find a solution in a reasonable time."

Pithart declined to answer reporters' questions.

His meeting with Castro took place hours after the Cuban leader insisted that Cuba wanted a Czech apology over the incident which has soured already strained ties
between the Cold War-era allies.

Pilip's wife, Lucie Pilipova, looked disappointed after Pithart's statement. "The only thing we can do is to carry on working with our lawyer to defend the two so they
can be released," she said.

She had earlier visited her husband at the Villa Marista state security headquarters in Havana, where he and Bubenik were being held.

Havana has accused the Czechs of being "agents" of U.S. interests, and of following the directives of the U.S.-based Freedom House organization -- known for its
opposition to Castro -- in meeting and seeking to help local dissidents.

Pithart said that in his talks with Castro he had explained his own past as an anti-government dissident under communist rule in the former Czechoslovakia, and how
he had often received foreign visitors and clandestine literature.

During a six-hour speech Friday night, Castro, making his first public comments on the case, said the two Czechs had been detained after being caught trying to
promote "subversion and destabilization."

This constituted "serious violations of our laws," Castro said. "Let the reality be admitted with our proofs, and let there be an apology made to our country," Castro

Castro did not mention any detailed charges in his speech but he said Cuba could clearly prove wrongdoing by the pair.

Czech President Vaclav Havel, himself a former anti-communist dissident, and other Czech leaders have ruled out an apology and have condemned the arrests as a
human rights abuse.

Pithart was in Cuba on Castro's personal invitation after writing a letter requesting the pair's release, and assuring the Cuban leader they were not working for the
United States.

Pilip and Bubenik were arrested after meeting dissident journalist Antonio Femenias and rights activist Roberto Valdivia. Havana regards all dissidents as
U.S.-backed counterrevolutionaries, and outlaws all opposition activism.

                                                   © 2001