Czechia and Cuba: the unspoken thaw

Fidel Castro, Cuban Prime Minister, and Gustáv Husák, General Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia (and later, President) in 1972. Source:


During the bloc era, numerous relations were established and consolidated between various countries. Czechoslovakia, for example, developed and strengthened diplomatic and friendly relations with several Eastern Bloc states, including Cuba. It was also one of the most significant supplier states to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA).

The Cuban Revolution (1953-1959) brought Havana closer to and into the communist bloc. Prague was one of the capitals with which the Caribbean island significantly strengthened its cooperation, from the economic to the educational and diplomatic levels.

In 1989, the Velvet Revolution marked the end of communism in the former Czechoslovakia. As a consequence, diplomatic relations between Havana and Prague cooled for a long time. Today, however, both countries seem determined to rekindle the embers of the relationships remaining from the end of the last century.

First steps

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk (1918-1935), Czechoslovakia’s first president, established important diplomatic ties with several states around the world. The pearl of the Caribbean quickly recognised Czechoslovakia’s independence; therefore, diplomatic relations were soon established. However, it was not until the triumph of the Cuban Revolution in 1959 that the island and the Slavic state began to consolidate their relations.

The union between the two countries took place swiftly after 1959. In fact, the House of Czechoslovak Culture was founded in Havana in 1962, being the first cultural and information centre of a foreign country there. Later, the House of Cuban Culture was established in Prague[1]. In the 1960s, the Caribbean island was already the Central European state’s most important trading partner in Latin America.

Danilo Alonso, Cuba’s ambassador in Prague. Photo: Celia Pérez

H.E. Mr Danilo Alonso, Cuba’s Ambassador in Prague, explains that the Czechoslovak government was willing to support a state that had just emerged from the US colony, which was Cuba.  “The Cuban people are grateful for the solidarity and support that was established,” says Ambassador Alonso. He also points out that the Czechoslovak ambassador who was then in Havana “was really a friend of the Revolution and contributed strongly to those ties of friendship”. “The ambassador’s daughter still lives here and she has come here, to the Cuban Embassy, and says that she has very good memories of Cuba, even though she was very young,” Alonso relates.

Fruitful relations

Cuba was a new member of the Eastern Bloc, so it needed the experience of some of the countries that made up the Eastern Bloc. “Czechoslovakia had a very developed infrastructure and industry, and that was very important for us,” points out Alonso. “When there are common interests, things flow. And we knew that we had to establish trade links with this country”.

Czechoslovakia also saw an opportunity in Cuba, as the former republic guided the island country in its industry and supplied it with capital goods, such as thermoelectric plants, motor and compressor factories, mining equipment, machinery and transport material, factory repairs, arms sales, and military assistance and training, among other things. According to Alonso, Czechoslovakia provided them with machinery and equipment to build the national electro-energy system, which developed after the Revolution. In fact, a large part of Cuba’s electricity is generated in Czechoslovakian plants. Moreover, according to the ambassador, the electro-energy cooperation between the two countries continues to this day and has never been interrupted. Alonso stressed that 98% of the country is electrified. For its part, Cuba supplied Czechoslovakia with minerals, nickel, sugar, citrus fruits, rum and tobacco. Nickel was very important for the Czech automobile and aircraft industry.

Ernesto Che Guevara, Cuban Minister of Industry, in a tractor factory in Brno in October 1960. Source: Inventing Europe

Beyond the exchange of products and goods, Havana and Prague collaborated in biological sciences, geography, geology, meteorology and electronics. It is worth noting that the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences assisted in the founding of the Academy of Sciences in Cuba. In 1963, direct collaboration agreements were established between the two organisations[2]. As well as providing research tools, Czechoslovakia also sent between 100 and 200 experts for long-term stays per year during the first half of the 1960s.

Bonding through education

As with Syria and Vietnam, Prague agreed on educational programmes with Havana so that Cubans could be educated in the former country and Czechoslovaks could study in the land of José Martí. These programmes ran from the 1960s until 1989 and allowed thousands of young people the opportunity for cultural exchange.

The first time the Czechoslovak government offered scholarships to Cuban students was in 1960. 250 university scholarships and 350 short-term scholarships to work in Czechoslovakian industry were awarded. Between 1960 and 1989 about a thousand Cubans were educated at Czechoslovak universities. In addition to students, between 1978 and 1989, some 30,000 Cubans passed through Czechoslovakia as part of the Project for Temporary Employment and Vocational Training of Cuban Citizens in Czechoslovak organisations. It is important to mention that the selected Cubans were required to study Czech during the first three months of their stay.

The aim of these educational and employment programmes was for the Cubans to apply their knowledge once they returned to their country. Most of those who returned to Cuba gained leadership positions in various companies. There were also Cubans who stayed in Czechoslovakia and started families. “This generated friendly relations between the peoples that go beyond diplomatic and political relations,” Alonso points out. He also comments that when he talks to Czechs who were in Cuba at that time, they tell him that they have very good memories. Like them, Cubans who went to the former country also have wonderful memories of those times.

David González is a Cuban who was sent to Czechoslovakia by the company where he worked in 1985. González says that when he arrived in the country, he had to study Czech for three months and then went to the town of Beroun. “There I had to prepare myself to work as an iron smelter, but in 1987 I was transferred to driving industrial vehicles,” says González. He relates that he easily adapted to Czechoslovak society and met his wife, which is why he decided to stay and not return to Cuba.

Rosa Castillo, Willi Zamora and Fidel Domínguez are other Cubans who worked and studied in Czechoslovakia. Castillo says she arrived in the country in 1978 to work for four years in Mileta, a textile company. She also studied Czech and integrated very well into society, although there were some cases of discrimination by Czechoslovaks. For example, Castillo explains that, according to some Czechoslovaks, she was black and they sometimes touched her to check if she was unwashed. Apart from that, Castillo has fond memories of the time and remembers Christmas in the old country and its streets with special affection. “I got very involved with its people and culture and today, 40 years later, I still love that country,” says Castillo. After completing his four years of training, she returned to Cuba in 1982 to put her knowledge into practice. Nevertheless, in 1995, she left for Miami (USA) due to the economic situation in the country.

The cases of Zamora and Domínguez are similar. The former flew to Czechoslovakia in 1985 to train and work as a milling lathe operator. He learned the language well and adapted easily, and agrees with Castillo that he was discriminated against by some Czechoslovaks. As for Domínguez, he arrived in the former republic in 1978 to work in a textile factory. When he improved his Czech language skills, he worked in other companies and managed groups of Cubans at Škoda Auto. He then returned to the Velveta textile company as a team leader and translator.

Both returned to Cuba, Zamora in 1988 and Domínguez in 1987. They held high positions in Cuban companies, but Zamora returned to Czechoslovakia in 1991 because his job was very badly paid. Domínguez went to Miami 25 years ago for similar reasons to Zamora and Castillo.

There were also many Czechoslovaks who studied in Cuba at that time. Ludmila Cilečková, a Spanish-Czech translator, studied Spanish in Havana in the 1970s. She says that the University of Brno sent her to complete her studies on the island through existing educational programmes. Cilečková says she loved the Cuban people and the nature of the country. It was not difficult for her to adapt and she established good relations with her Cuban classmates. Today, she works for Czech companies that have offices in Cuba and, according to her, many of these Cubans studied in Czechoslovakia.

All of them consider that those educative and work programmes were very useful for both, Czechoslovakia and Cuba, as they were able to get to know a different culture, a new language, and new people and acquire new knowledge and skills.

The Eastern Bloc collapses, but Cuba resists

The Western Bloc and the Eastern Bloc. Source: Wikiwand

In 1989, the Velvet Revolution took place in Czechoslovakia, bringing an end to communism in the country and elevating Václav Havel to the presidency. This meant that Czechoslovakia, and later the Czech Republic and Slovakia, gradually moved into Washington’s orbit. “The government that took over did not have the same purpose as the previous one. Therefore, there was a certain cooling of political and diplomatic relations, not between peoples,” Alonso argues.

Diplomatic relations between Prague and Havana were frozen for a long time. In fact, Alonso explains that when Czechoslovakia was dissolved on 31st December 1992 and Slovakia and the Czech Republic were founded on 1st January 1993, “no ambassador was appointed, neither here nor in Cuba”. Alonso clarifies: “The Cuban ambassador in the Czech Republic was not withdrawn, but because two countries were established, there were other diplomatic relations. And they delayed the time to choose an ambassador”.

The Czech Republic named an ambassador to the Cuban capital in 2016 and Cuba reciprocated in 2019. Alonso is the first Cuban ambassador in Prague since the country was formed in 1993. According to him, there was no intention on the Cuban side to sever diplomatic relations. On the other hand, “there has always been a charge d’affaires in both embassies because commercial interests and diplomatic were not severed, only at the political level,” he says.

Since then, the Czech government has denounced the political situation in Cuba several times. It even presented a resolution condemning Fidel Castro’s government three times at the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva. With respect to that, Alonso stressed that “Cuba is a grateful people, open to having relations with any country, regardless of its social system, but always respecting and abiding by the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country, which is one of the bases of international relations”. He also recalls that the Cuban government has reiterated on several occasions that its relations with the USA can improve on the basis of these principles.

According to Alonso, when the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991 and the socialist bloc fell, “the world thought, and the USA itself thought, that Cuba would also fall, but that was not the case. It didn’t happen because the Cuban Revolution is an indigenous revolution. Nobody made it for us, it was made by the Cuban people”, Alonso maintains. The ambassador stresses that Cuba was left isolated and this meant that its GDP declined by 30%, since the complementarity that existed in the socialist camp was no longer possible. Moreover, the USA embargo on socialist Cuba began in 1960 and intensified from the 1990s onwards.

A return to fruitful relations?

The appointment of a Czech ambassador to Havana in 2016 and of a Cuban ambassador to Prague in 2019 marked a diplomatic rapprochement between the two states.  According to Alonso, time has shown that the important thing is to focus on what unites them and not on what separates them. “We have many points in common and there is no need to argue about what we do not like. And, above all, remember that each country is free and sovereign to make its own decisions,” the ambassador underlines.  

Today, diplomatic relations have improved considerably and “they are still very cordial and normal. We hope that with time they will improve more and more”, Alonso points out. On the other hand, commercial relations are still very good, and “with the resumption of diplomatic relations, they will increase even more”. Apart from this, there are affective ties between the people that can facilitate the situation.

Alonso stresses that Cuba is open to foreign investment in different sectors of industry and that the country’s economic needs can be complemented by Czech entrepreneurs. He stresses that it would be beneficial for Cuba’s economic and social development and for Czech companies: “some of the businessmen have shown interest and others are concerned about the USA blockade”. Alonso points out that, due to the blockade, if a businessman has business ties with Cuba, the USA can withdraw his visa to enter the USA and close his business in the USA. “Despite this, Cuba is open to investment, but the businessman risks the blockade,” the ambassador notes.

He also argues that nickel could be just as important as in the past. However, “Cuban nickel is sanctioned. Any mechanical production that contains more than 15% Cuban nickel cannot be marketed anywhere. That is why we say that Cuba does not have an embargo, but rather a blockade, because it is about blocking any relation that Cuba wants to have with the wider world”, stresses Alonso. He states that during the Trump’s administration, 240 measures were approved in order to further block financial resources.

On the other hand, Cuba accumulated a very high financial debt to Czechoslovakia. According to Prague, the figure is 280 million Euros. However, Havana does not agree with this amount. Ambassador Alonso points out that Cuba does not recognise this debt because before the Velvet Revolution, relations were different as these relations were based on transferable roubles[3]. The ambassador explains that Cuba agrees to renegotiate the debt, the method of payment and the deadlines, since “the country cannot fail to attend to the priorities of the population, such as health and education”. The ambassador stresses that the debt has been renegotiated with Slovakia.

Undoubtedly, the two have taken a very important step in their bilateral relations. It seems that, in a discreet manner, both are moving towards a warmer diplomatic environment. A thaw that is not nearly as prominent in the media as the one between the USA and Cuba could be, but no less important for that. On other occasions, the Czech Republic has demonstrated the professionalism of its diplomats and Cuba is determined to rebuild old relations. These are definitely optimal ingredients for the resumption, with hard work and effort, of the ties that once strongly united the pearl of the Caribbean and the heart of Europe.

Esta obra está bajo una Licencia Creative Commons Atribución-NoComercial-SinDerivadas 4.0 Internacional.

[1] “It was a call from the Revolution”- Cultural, and scientific collaboration between Czechoslovakia and Cuba in the 1960s, 70s and 80s Hana Bortlova

[2] “It was a call from the Revolution”- Cultural, and scientific collaboration between Czechoslovakia and Cuba in the 1960s, 70s and 80s Hana Bortlova

[3] The transferable rouble was a currency unit based on the Soviet rouble that was used in the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (COMECON) until 1991 to calculate the value of trade and debt of member countries.

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