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Czech NGO quietly advocates for democracy in Cuba.

For more than a decade now, the Czech Republic has been one of the Castro regime's loudest critics in Europe. Throughout the 1990s, former Czech President Vaclav Havel and his conservative counterpart from Spain, Jose Maria Aznar, talked frequently about Cuba's treatment of dissidents and its disregard of basic political freedoms--even as leftist politicians like Spain's Felipe Gonzalez remained silent on the issue.

In late 2003, such sentiments were formalized in Prague with the founding of the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba, an advocacy group established by the Czech NGO known as People in Need. ICDC came about after Havel--responding to Cuba's arrest of 75 dissidents earlier that year--organized a conference in Madrid where he urged EU member states to reach out to Cuban dissidents.

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People in Need now has programs to improve economic development and democracy in 37 nations.

Over the past seven years, ICDC's members have lobbied national, regional and global institutions to help Cuban dissidents, while urging more diplomatic pressure against Havana.

Prominent ICDC members include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright; Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa, former Chilean presidents Eduardo Frei and Patricio Aylwin, ex-Nicaraguan president Violeta Chamorro, ex-Guatemalan president Vinicio Cerezo, former Uruguayan president Luis Alberto Lacalle and Edward H.C. McMillan-Scott, vice-president of the European Parliament.

An ICDC official, who asked not to be named because of the group's clandestine work on the island, emailed CubaNews recently about the organization's efforts.

"Several ICDC members have tried to visit members of the Cuban opposition," said the official. "For some it has been possible--former Bulgarian Prime Minister Philip Dimitrov in 2008; for some not, as the Cuban government refused to grant them a visa--such as Norwegian MP Jan Tore Sanner in 2009."

The ICDC funds independent journalists and pro-democracy activities in Cuba. It also sets up events in Europe "to help develop the diverse groups calling for change in Cuba into a more unified front, and to give leading Cuban opposition leaders and political prisoners a chance to speak directly to the world about what life is really like on the island."

Former Cuban prisoners of conscience like Manuel Vazquez Portal and Osvaldo Alfonso Valdes, as well as Cuban-Americans such as Carlos Saladrigas of the Cuba Study Group, have participated in some of ICDC's events throughout Central and Eastern Europe.

In March 2005, the organization staged a demonstration in support of Cuban political prisoners at a public square in Prague. The protest was led by Petr Pithart, president of the Czech Senate. The point was to counter the Cuban government's tourist-friendly "Fidelandia" image of tropical socialism of mojitos and mulatas by the beach which has become popular throughout Europe.

The ICDC opposes Spain's current government led by Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, who wants to ease pressure on Havana over human-rights issues.

"There have been several statements directed at European decision-makers regarding EU policy towards Cuba and calling for a consistent policy emphasizing the issue of human rights on the island," says the official.

"It is of course difficult to measure the impact of activities conducted by ICDC members, but these activities contribute to the public and political debate regarding EU policies towards Cuba. The EU's common position on Cuba is still in place, and there is a strong opposition to efforts by Spain [which currently holds the EU's rotating presidency] to eliminate it and establish closer ties with the Cuban government."

Unlike Cuban-American student group Raices de Esperanza, which has held celebrity-studded marches in Miami, New York and Los Angeles, the ICDC hasn't conducted similar protests over the death of dissident Orlando Zapata earlier this year, or over Cuba's harassment of Ladies in White protesters.

However, some of the group's members, like Norway's Sanner and Spain's Aznar, have held their own activities in memory of Zapata.

Asked if Cuban authorities will ignore EU pressure on human rights as China and Venezuela become more relevant to Cuba's economy, the ICDC official said it's doubtful.

"I think the Cuban government still cares about its image in Europe," he said. "So, in the sense of being able to influence to some extent the politicians and public opinion in Europe, I think our role has not changed. We try to outweigh the information and PR the Cuban government sends to the world, and we constantly draw attention to human-rights violations and the real situation on the island."

Maria Werlau runs the New Jersey-based nonprofit group Cuba Archive, which tracks those who died under the Castro regime. She says ICDC's Cuba activities are positive because they expose the island's human-rights record to new audiences.

"I think the tide is turning," she told CubaNews. "In Spain, media attention is starting to turn against the Cuban government. ICDC is active in those countries where Cuba was not an issue before, like Eastern Europe. They're a dedicated group of people."
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Author:Echevarria, Vito
Publication:CubaNews
Date:Jul 1, 2010
Words:811
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