People in Need continue "jail cell" campaign for Cuban dissidents

Photo: Freddy Valverde

Visitors to Prague were treated to an odd sight recently - prisoners wearing striped fatigues sitting disconsolately in a pretend jail cell on Wenceslas Square. It was neither a piece of performance art nor an elaborate joke, but part of a campaign run by the Czech NGO People in Need, to remind people of the imprisonment of 75 Cuban dissidents in March 2003.

 Nikola Horejs, photo: Freddy Valverde
Many of those dissidents are still in prison, cut off from their friends and family. Nikola Horejs is from People in Need's centre for human rights and democracy:

"This was started after March 2003, when 75 journalists and opposition politicians were jailed in Cuba in a massive crackdown. Since then, we've been doing this in solidarity with them. So we try to sit in the jail so they would not have to spend so much time in their jail themselves."

It could be argued that events such as this don't have much effect. The regime is still in power, and the political prisoners are still in prison.

"This is targeted at the Cuban dissidents, of course, so they see there is some solidarity with them. We send postcards with photos, we try to send all kind of messages that we are thinking of them. That helps them to withstand the conditions there. I don't think Europeans are very well informed about what's going on in Cuba. They know about the beaches and Mojitos. So this is also targeted at the European audience, so they know what happens."

Photo: Freddy Valverde
It's not just People in Need which is involved in promoting democracy and human rights in Cuba, the Czech government is also quite active. Why has the Czech Republic taken it upon itself to fight for the cause of Cuban dissidents?

"Because of our past of course. The experience of totalitarianism is somehow difficult to explain to people who live in Western Europe, and that's why I think it's easier to explain in the Czech Republic and easier to find support for these kinds of efforts."

And what kind of response have you had to this event over the years?

"Every year Cubans know more about the solidarity of the Czech Republic. Every year we have more opponents, because since 1989 more and more people do not understand why we do it. They think we do it only because the United States wants us to do it."

And that's not the case?

"No, of course it's not. This was started by ex-dissidents from the Czech Republic. These are people who were in prison here, samizdat, underground journalists, who today go to Cuba and try to talk to underground journalists there and share the experience."

This year, as every year for the past four years, a number of leading politicians, journalists and other public figures took it in turns to don prison fatigues and climb into the cell. One of the first to do so was the former student leader Jan Bubenik, who was arrested in Cuba along with the former MP Ivan Pilip in 2001, after trying to pass materials to Cuban dissidents. Jan Bubenik has first-hand experience of a real Cuban prison cell:

"Unfortunately. Me and Ivan Pilip were in Cuba in 2001 to meet a few dissidents and independent journalists, which unfortunately ended up with our apprehension and imprisonment for several weeks. This is why I'm here, to express my solidarity with the people in prison in Cuba and with their families, who live in very miserable conditions."

This year is the fourth year that the Cuban jail is on Wenceslas Square. Do you have the feeling that you are achieving anything?

"I think this is the minimum we can do actually. I think any expression of solidarity which gets the attention of everybody around the world, or at least our fellow citizens here, is the minimum we can do. Last year I was here with the current prime minister, people who are now working in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. I think their involvement and their ability to express the experience of a country which has undergone a transition from communism and has had firsthand experience of a similar regime is important. I think we should be at the forefront of advocating democracy and freedom for people in countries which are not as fortunate as we are."

Do you detect any change in conditions in Cuba?

"Quite frankly I don't think that Raul Castro has loosened up the regime in any significant way. There have been cosmetic concessions, when he released four dissidents who were basically in the worst health condition, but otherwise he's locked up many more people. Personally, from the information I have, I don't see any changes."

There is of course a political dimension to the protest. Many if not most of the people who took part in the event would place themselves on the right of the political spectrum. But even during the previous centre-left administration, support for Cuban dissidents was top of the agenda, largely thanks to the efforts of former Christian Democrat foreign minister Cyril Svoboda. The Czech government has supported human rights and democracy in Cuba for many years, and has lobbied hard for the EU to take a tougher stance towards the Cuban regime. Journalists such as Jan Machacek believe that Czechs have a moral obligation to support Cuban prisoners of conscience:

"I think it's important because I know and remember how important it was for dissidents here before the fall of communism when someone expressed public support or any kind of support from liberal democracies. I spent some time in Cuba, visiting families of imprisoned dissidents and lecturing a little bit."

It's about solidarity, basically.

"Definitely."

Do you have any indication that the people in prison get to hear about this solidarity?

"It's really hard to tell how much they hear about it in prison, because there's a very low level of communication with them. But definitely dissidents who are not in prison at the moment are very well aware of what's happening here, and are trying to deliver the messages to the prisoners. Sometimes People in Need get information that even people in prison get some information about what's happening here. So it's not easy. For instance, the information age hasn't made it to Cuba. The Internet is not available for dissidents.

Photo: Freddy Valverde
Internet cafes are few and far between, and if it's a little town, dissidents are not allowed to enter the Internet café. It's not easy, but the message is somehow sometimes delivered."

Unfortunately it wasn't possible to find out what the Cuban government thought of People in Need and their campaign of support for dissidents; the Cuban Embassy failed to respond to several requests for interviews for this programme.

In April last year, Havana expelled a high-ranking Czech diplomat, whom the Cuban authorities accused of spying for the United States. It was the latest incident in a steady decline in relations between the two countries, which have been put under strain by the issue of Czech support for democracy and human rights. Since then, little has changed.