Here is another story of how South Dakota, in the heart of America, can change international outcomes. This is also the story of courage: what courage looks like and what it doesn’t.
Secretary Kerry recently boasted that President Obama showed courage in his unconditional reopening of relations with Cuba, but what the president did wasn’t courageous. True courage can be found in Cuba’s jails cells—jail cells which hold political prisoners who the president completely ignored in his unconditional acceptance of a terrible and vindictive communist regime.
True courage could also be found in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic in 1989 during the Velvet Revolution. On November 16, 1989 university students demonstrated in the streets of Prague to protest the communist government. One of the demonstration’s leaders was Jan Bubeník, a young college student who would later become my friend. On that day in November and over many months that Jan continually confronted the oppressive government of his county. What began as a demonstration of university students with about 60,000 people climaxed with 500,000 people standing face-to-face with equally young Soviet soldiers in the heart of their city. These young people faced each other and without bloodshed or violence or war, communism ended in that courageous country.
Following the revolution a parliamentary government was formed and Jan was its youngest member. In June of 1990 Czechoslovakia held its first democratic elections since 1946. Czechoslovakia had been under control of either Germany or the USSR since the Nazis invaded in 1939 and now—this country known for the naturalness of its freedom—was finally free.
After the election Jan moved to the United States to continue his education at University of Colorado in Boulder. It was my privilege to get to know Jan very well when he interned for a company of which I was a director. He later came to South Dakota to view Mount Rushmore shared his hopes for the future and for his life—a life which continues to this day because of a surprising intervention made by a South Dakota United States senator—Majority Leader Tom Daschle.
How did Tom Daschle come to intervene on behalf of a revolutionary and former parliamentarian from the Czech Republic? You could call it a coincidence, but as the saying goes, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.”
My late wife’s, Ita, niece is a physician’s assistant in Los Angeles. In 1997 or 1998 she was traveling to Slovakia to take part in research and planned to stop in Prague on her way (by this time Czechoslovakia had peacefully separated into two sovereign nations: the Czech Republic and Slovakia). I gave her Jan’s name and they had a very pleasant visit and discussion before she went on to Slovakia.
President Bush was elected in November of 2000 and shortly afterwards I received a call from Jan telling me that he was coming for the inauguration and asking if I also planned to attend. He said that he was coming with a college, Ivan Pilip, and hoped to see me. This was after my first election to the legislature, so the inaugural was impossible, and I gave Jan my regrets.
In the second or third week of my first legislative session there was an email from Ita’s niece saying that she had received an email from a doctor in Slovakia informing her that Jan was in serious trouble in Cuba. While I knew that Jan had planned to stop in Cuba to visit with some “dissidents” on his way to Washington, I knew nothing of any trouble.
Concerned, I called Florida state legislator Mario Diaz-Balart (now a member of congress for Florida), whose parents had fled Cuba. I gave his office Jan’s name and asked if they knew anything about a couple of Czechs having a problem in Cuba. I received a call back from Mario’s staff informing me that Jan and Ivan had been arrested, but was assured that they were still alive. I asked, “Still alive?” They replied, “Yes, while it’s unusual as they have been charged with serious crimes against the government because they were meeting with dissidents.” She told me that was rather unusual because while other foreigners have these meetings and are criticized or deported, she’d never heard of anything quite as drastic as they were charging Jan and his friend—who had been in the parliament with Jan and was the former deputy interior minister of the Czech Republic.
Immediately, I called Tom Daschle’s office in Washington to tell them about Jan’s situation and who he was—that he wasn’t an agitator and that he was someone who believed in freedom and that I could vouch for him as I knew him well. It happened that Tom wasn’t available as he was on his way to South Dakota to sign the Missouri River Compact on Water in Pierre. However, because Tom’s staff knew that I was a responsible person who wouldn’t have called if it weren’t serious, they immediately contacted the U.S. Interests Section in Havana on Jan and Ivan’s behalf. They told them to notify the Cuban government that the majority leader was very concerned about the arrest of the two former parliamentarians from Czechoslovakia and personally wanted to be assured that they would not be harmed and would be allowed to proceed on their way to Washington.
At the compact signing in Pierre, my seat was in the front row with Speaker Pro Tem Matt Michaels and immediately adjacent to the table were Tom Daschle and Governor Janklow would be seated. It was easy for me to give Tom a note briefly explaining who Jan was, my concern, and the information that we had received.
As it happened, Tom had recently visited Cuba and met with Castro towards finding a way to help improve relations between their two countries. After receiving my note, Tom called and notified Castro that under no circumstances would he consider any assistance to Cuba if anything happened to the two former parliamentarians.
The next day Jan and Ivan were hustled on a plane to Europe.
What do the end of communism in the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, the detainment of two Czech revolutionaries, and current opening of relations with Cuba have in common?
As our president leads us down this road with Cuba, let’s recognize that the Castro brothers have a long memory. Longer, it seems, than ours and certainly more vengeful.