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Czech Republic welcomes former Cuban political prisoners
CubaNews / November 2010

By Larry Luxner

The Czech Republic has become the second European Union country after Spain to grant asylum to a Cuban political prisoner, with the arrival of Rolando Jiménez Posada.

Pavla Holcová, Cuba director of the non-governmental organization People in Need (PIN), said the Czech Foreign Ministry is ready to accept up to 10 Cuban political prisoners and their families.

“For a long time, the Czech Republic has been quite active in the field of human rights in Cuba, one of the world’s few remaining authoritarian regimes,” Holcova told CubaNews during an hour-long visit to PIN’s Prague headquarters last month.

“The original idea was to pay back the debt of the Czech dissident movement, which was supported before the revolution by similar NGOs from the West,” she explained.

For decades, Czechoslovakia enjoyed tight relations with Havana until communism fell in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the country was split a few years later into the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Both nations today advocate a very hard line against the Castro regime.

People in Need, which is also active in Burma, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Moldova, spends one-third of its resources on Cuba. It’s been involved in Cuba issues since 1997.

Holcová, who’s been to the island three times, said her interest in journalism and fascination with Latin America led her to the job at PIN, where she directs a full-time staff of five people working on nothing but Cuba issues.

“We are going in on tourist visas, not as NGOs,” she told CubaNews. “But we don’t go so often to Cuba ourselves. What we want is to keep the project going by sending different people from different nationalities.”

PIN’s total budget for Cuba is about $1.5 million for a two-year period. Most of that comes from the U.S. Agency for International Development, with other funds provided by the National Endowment for Democracy, the Czech Foreign Ministry and private funds.

“We are a European NGO, and we use public donations of People in Need to work with dissidents,” she said. “It’s even a condition of USAID that you can’t spend their money directly in Cuba.”

Holcová says her group works in four main areas: supporting the families of political prisoners; sending medicines to prisoners; supporting independent journalists and others active in Cuban civil society with know-how and technical equipment, and advocating for human rights in Cuba throughout Europe.

Yet Prague’s unabashed support for the dissident movement has made the Czech Republic deeply unpopular among official circles in Havana.

“We’ve got an embassy there, but Czech diplomats aren’t even invited to official Cuban functions,” Holcová lamented. “There are special conditions that apply only to Czech citizens. For example, if you have a casa particular and Czech citizens arrive, you must give their names to the police.”

Despite the restrictions, “quite a lot of Czech tourists go to Cuba. We try to push them to travel responsibly, meaning they should bring books and information and things like that, and talk to Cubans about democratic transition. But people who are going to spend their vacation in Cuba don’t really care about human rights. They know it isn’t right, but unfortunately they are not very interested in getting more information.”

Holcová said she expects at least five more former “prisoners of conscience” from Cuba to be granted political asylum in the Czech Republic.

“We have many critics,” she acknowledged. “They say we are paid by the CIA, and that we should focus not on faraway Cuba but on the Czech Republic, and that we are violating the sovereignty of independent states.”

Yet unlike its hardline counterparts in South Florida, People in Need does not advocate overthrow of the Castro regime — and it opposes the 50-year-old U.S. trade embargo.

“We don’t agree with the embargo. It would be great if it could somehow be lifted,” said Holcová said, adding that “we focus on supporting civil society, not regime change.”

“If there would be a strong civil society under [the rule of the] Castro brothers, we wouldn’t argue with that. It’s their decision. But the Cuban people must have the possibility to make their own decisions.”

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