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fallen angels Ivan Pilip

fallen angels Ivan Pilip

Posted: February 21, 2001

By James Pitkin

fallen angels Ivan Pilip

Reprieved from Cuba, Pilip and Bubenik recall reused needles and whispers

By James Pitkin


Jan Bubenik remembers the syringe.

"They played with us quite often," he says. "They woke me up one morning without a word and we passed through three gates."

He was ill, with severe sinusitis and bronchitis - feverish, unable to keep food down.

"A black nurse in a white coat shows up, and wrapped in an old newspaper she brings out this old, glass, Soviet-made syringe with a needle that had just been used so many times. And all of a sudden you have it in your vein, you know, and I thought 'Oh my God, I'm gonna die.'"

That day, when his captors drew a simple blood test, was one of the 24 Bubenik spent in custody in President Fidel Castro's Cuba.

Bubenik, a student leader during the overthrow of communism in 1989 and now deputy chairman of the board of airplane manufacturer Aero Vodochody, was detained along with former Finance Minister Ivan Pilip on Jan. 12, after the two met with anti-Castro dissidents in the provincial city of Ciego de Avila.

Their trip, funded in part by the U.S.-based rights organization Freedom House, landed them in a Havana prison charged as U.S. agents and facing sentences of up to 20 years - until international pressure and an official apology saw them released on Feb. 5.

The incident - which underscored increasingly tense relations between Prague and Havana, former Soviet-era allies - saw both men placed under considerable strain.

While the 32-year-old Bubenik had his confrontation with the nurse, Pilip, 37, developed a forced appreciation for Cuban cigars.

"I don't smoke," he says. "But I did use cigars under stress, though, during the interrogations. Because it helps. The interrogations are nothing pleasant psychologically."

The questioning was all in Spanish. Sessions were about two hours long, and sometimes led to nerve-racking standoffs.

"We'd sit in silence for minutes at a time, just staring at each other, both of us smoking." He apes the motions, inhaling deeply, his eyes set defiantly ahead. "Psychologically it was not very easy. I felt if they wanted to, they could just ..."

He doesn't finish.

Why the two men found themselves in Cuba in the first place is still a debated question. They say it was a purely humanitarian mission. They accepted a Freedom House offer to visit and support dissidents, stopping in New York for instructions and changing planes in Miami en route to the Caribbean island.

Castro sees it differently. Perhaps sensitive to the Miami stopover - the city is filled with Cuban defectors - he first threatened to hold the prisoners until Prague confessed to full-blown espionage, which Prime Minister Milos Zeman rejected.

For a time, Prague, a new NATO member, and Havana, the last influential Western communist state, seemed deadlocked.

But now, back home, there's room for laughter. As in a classic comedy team, the affable Bubenik plays a loquacious Hardy to Pilip's gloomy Laurel.

"I remember we were having a press conference with President [Vaclav] Havel after we got back," says Bubenik. "Ivan leaned over to me and said 'Relax, you don't have to keep your hands behind your back anymore' - like the police made us do all the time. Remember that, Ivan?"

Pale and glum, Pilip sits stock still beside him at the cafe table. He says nothing.

"You smart-ass!" Bubenik bellows, and punches Pilip in the arm with a campy grin. Still no reaction from the parliamentarian.

For Pilip, a member of the right-leaning Freedom Union, there is political hay to be made from the incident. His party has undertaken previous high-profile humanitarian missions to Belarus, scoring political points at home. But for Bubenik - already a member of the nation's corporate elite - it's back to life in the corporate world.

Behind bars

In Cuba, Bubenik was the talker.

"I'm not exactly an introvert," he says. "It's like breathing for me. I need to communicate."

So the days in a small cell with three Cuban prisoners were difficult. He speaks no Spanish.

"I quickly learned some words," Bubenik says. "I studied at medical school so I knew some Latin. We kind of put it together and used hands and body language. But sometimes it was very frustrating."

Pilip is the operator, the politician. While Bubenik was making friends, Pilip was making contacts.

"I was receiving information from - an 'intermediator,' let's say." With narrowed eyes, he declines to elaborate. "The state officials, according to him, were divided. There was one group that said 'OK, we don't really care about them, let's let them go and show how generous we are.' Surprisingly, it was the younger ones who wanted to have an exhibition trial, and show everybody what Cuba can do. But in the end it was up to only one man."

That man, of course, was the 74-year-old Castro. But according to both Pilip and Bubenik there was another figure - Senate Chairman Petr Pithart - who was instrumental in weakening Castro's resolve.

"His mission was totally crucial," says Bubenik, referring to Pithart's three-day trip to Cuba, which came after Pithart had written a personal note to the Cuban leader. Castro then invited him to Havana.

His lengthy encounter with Castro on Feb. 3 led to the prisoners' release within 48 hours.

"Pithart was important, because Castro was so angry - but he wanted out of it somehow," Pilip reflects. "He needed a way out, and Pithart was the bridge."

The Senate chairman - who has since faced criticism in Parliament for insisting on the need to maintain contact with the Castro regime - is widely credited with brokering the prisoners' release. In exchange for their freedom, Pilip and Bubenik signed a document admitting they had broken the law and apologizing to the Cuban people.

For Pilip, the compromise was hard to swallow.

"I didn't like it," he says. "But it was written in such a way that we could sign it. We didn't have to condemn Freedom House, we didn't have to say that the people of Cuba are in a perfect situation ... The apology was linked only to breaking the law; to what we really did."

Freed, the pair landed in Prague on Feb. 5 and were greeted with a heroes' welcome - including a reception hosted by Havel himself. But Bubenik, for one, was looking forward to the simpler comforts of home.

"I wrote my parents that the first thing I wanted was my grandma's svickova [tenderloin in cream sauce] and Pilsner beer." In prison, he says, it was just black beans and rice - sometimes a little "mystery meat."

"I was just so exhausted when I arrived," he recalls.

Pilip, meanwhile, came down with a nasty flu soon after getting home - "a normal adjustment," he says offhandedly. He's more concerned about Antonio Femenias and Roberto Valdivia, the dissident journalists they met with in Ciego de Avila, a provincial city in central Cuba.

"The Cuban style, it's not like Central Europe," Pilip says. "They used our first names right away; the informal mode of address. So we were quite friendly, although we knew each other only two hours."

Since the meeting, he says, the harassment the two Cubans have faced for years has been stepped up. Pilip still communicates regularly with them by phone.

"The police detain them about once a week, maybe for a few hours," he says. "They can't work, their kids can't go to school. Their neighbors come to the house and destroy their door, or shit there; call them counterrevolutionary."

Bubenik recalls a moment of truth from his days in custody.

"All of a sudden they showed me a picture ..." he pauses before continuing.

"... Of my family, a picture from our house, and they said 'We know things about your family that would really surprise you.' They said 'You would like to see them again, wouldn't you?'"

"Like a roller-coaster"

The picture, he later learned, was taken from an undeveloped roll of film from his camera. He'd never seen it before.

"Then they put in front of you an indictment," he says, "with a 20-year sentence. And all the time you don't know if anybody even knows where you are. They put a picture of your family next to that."

For him, imprisonment was three weeks of emotional vertigo.

"It was like a roller-coaster ride, the highs and lows. You learn to suppress your hope," he says. "I kind of was holding it back, but still you always want to believe something good is going to happen."

The diplomatic compromise Pithart helped to forge soon yielded a moment that remains frozen in time for Bubenik.

"We waited three hours for the verdict, and there were so many moments when it looked like we were gonna go home," he remembers. "Finally we were walking from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to the cars, and there were all the journalists and they were screaming at us, and I could finally admit it. It was real."

James Pitkin's e-mail address is

By James Pitkin

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