- The Washington Times - Friday, March 16, 2001

Two Czech citizens who were held for 25 days in Cuba this year speculated yesterday that they were arrested because authorities did not want Cuban dissidents to learn more about the collapse of communism in their homeland.

"Our interrogators said many times: 'We are afraid you will tell our dissidents what happened in Central Europe,' " said Ivan Philip, a Czech parliamentarian arrested for visiting dissidents in Cuba.

"They said: 'What happened in Central Europe will not succeed here.' "

Mr. Philip, a member of the Czech parliament since 1996, and Jan Bubenik, a student leader during Czechoslovakia's Velvet Revolution and a former parliamentarian, were arrested Jan. 12 in the central province of Ciego de Avila. The arrests sparked international condemnation and the men were released Feb. 5 after admitting that they had unwittingly broken Cuban law.

Yesterday, they spoke with reporters at the Czech ambassador's residence in Washington.

In the past, individuals who ran afoul of the Cuban government were simply expelled. Mr. Philip was the first foreign parliamentarian to be held.

Based on conversations with their jailers, the men listed several reasons for their arrest:

• The United Stated had just elected a Republican president, with critical support from anti-Castro Cuban-Americans in Florida.

• The Czech Republic sponsored resolutions at the annual U.N. Commission for Human Rights in Geneva in 1999 and 2000 condemning human rights violations in Cuba. (Ambassador Alexandr Vondra, who was jailed in the former Czechoslovakia as a dissident, reiterated his government's intention to sponsor a similar resolution when the commission convenes next week.)

• The Czechs were sponsored by Freedom House, a U.S.-based human rights organization that also sent aid to Czech dissidents in the 1980s.

• As leaders in the revolution that ended communism in Eastern Europe, the men were "living examples [for Cuba's political opposition] of what can be done."

"I think that was the most irritating thing," said Mr. Philip.

The men said they were held separately in 6- by 10-foot cells in Havana's notorious Villa Marista jail, where a fluorescent light shone 24 hours a day. Their toilet was a hole in the floor and they had running water for 15 minutes a day. They were interrogated at all hours of the day.

They said they were amply fed, mostly with black beans, rice and some "mystery spam," although the food got better a few days before they were released.

Mr. Bubenik, who does not speak Spanish, said his incarceration was very difficult.

"You feel so helpless. You are alone with your thoughts and your fears," he said.

Mr. Bubenik said his last visit to the ambassador's residence in Washington was in February 1990 as part of an entourage that accompanied Vaclav Havel on the new president's first official visit to Washington. At that time Czechoslovakia was the diplomatic representative in Washington for the Cuban Interests Section. Cuba is now represented by Switzerland.

"It was decided by Vaclav Havel that Czechoslovakia would not represent such a regime. I am very proud of that," Mr. Bubenik said.

Duplicating President Reagan's policy that contributed to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, it has been U.S. policy since 1995 to encourage "people-to-people" contact with ordinary Cubans, including dissidents.

More than a dozen U.S. organizations, including Freedom House and the Center for a Free Cuba, receive about $3 million a year in U.S. aid to support democracy in Cuba. Some recruit private individuals to travel to Cuba to deliver books, communications equipment and humanitarian aid to dissidents and their families.

Legislation now before Congress would authorize about $25 million a year to spend on such projects. Asked about the legislation, both men were adamant that outsiders must support the Cuban "freedom fighters," as they did the Czechs, even at the risk of being arrested.

They suggested that travelers sponsored by Latin American and European private organizations would be better able to help the dissidents than those sponsored by U.S. organizations.

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