- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 28, 2006

PRAGUE — A set of photos showing the suffering of Cuban AIDS victims and the squalid conditions in a Havana shantytown went on display here last week after having been smuggled out of Cuba by a Czech fashion model.

Helena Houdova, whose face has graced the covers of numerous magazines, and her friend Mariana Kroftova, who is identified in news reports as a psychologist and sometimes model, complained they were held for 11 hours and denied access to Czech consular officials after being arrested for taking the pictures while visiting the island.

The Czech women were detained while photographing a slum outside of Havana on Jan. 23. Authorities confiscated a roll of 35 mm film from Miss Kroftova’s camera, but Miss Houdova managed to save her photos by slipping the memory chip from her digital camera into her bra.

A diplomatic ruckus over the arrests simply increased interest in the photo exhibit, which opened officially on Saturday in a gallery just off Prague’s Wenceslas Square. Miss Houdova hopes soon to bring the two dozen or so photos for an exhibit in the United States.

The model, a former Miss Czech Republic who runs a charity in New York that supports disadvantaged children in nine countries, said at the opening that the Cuban people are repressed and Fidel Castro’s government is in denial.

“People can’t do what they love. People can’t speak what they want,” she said in an interview. “That’s what’s happening. The fact that the [government] says there is no poverty” only makes a bad situation worse, she said.

Among those who turned out to applaud Miss Houdova’s derring-do, and to remind people of the grim realities of communism, was the Czech Republic’s most famous former dissident, Vaclav Havel.

Mr. Havel, who was Czech president until 2003, said it would be easy enough for Miss Houdova to focus on her modeling career while ignoring those less-fortunate.

“I very [much] admire this work,” he told The Washington Times. “She is engaged in human rights in different spheres, and she was also in Cuba and made these photos. I think it is very respectable.”

Miss Houdova said her biggest fear during her detention was not for her own well-being but for that of her Cuban guide, the wife of a leading dissident, who could have been jailed indefinitely. So far that has not happened.

Miss Houdova said the guide urged her to “please talk about it everywhere you can, and let the world know what is happening here.” The photo exhibition, which she hopes to bring to several U.S. cities in addition to Washington, is Miss Houdova’s way of fulfilling that request.

The Czech People in Need Foundation backed the models’ trip, and the funds raised from the sale of photos in Prague will go into its SOS Cuba program, which aids the country’s dissidents.

While Miss Houdova expressed relief that her Cuban friend is not in jail, the foundation’s Nikola Horejs was more cautious.

He said life has gotten more difficult for Cuba’s dissidents and their families since a sweep in 2003 landed 75 journalists, doctors and other regime opponents in jail.

The Cuban government is increasingly sensitive to negative publicity, he said. “They know very well how to do this thing. They wait a bit, and then slowly, step by step, harass these people and try to make them leave the country.”

Both Mr. Havel and Mr. Horejs said the European Union should put more pressure on the Cuban government. Mr. Havel said the former communist countries that are now EU members — the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Slovenia and the three Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia — are the ones who should push the union toward a tougher stand.

“Europe could do more,” Mr. Havel said. “And I think that our countries, with our experience, have to press the whole European Union.”

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