Pluck and luck save smuggled photos
Posted: 20 February 2006 06:44 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Banned images taken by Czech beauty queen to go on display in Prague

By Sarah Schaschek
and Jeffrey White

The Prague Post

February 15, 2006

As a supermodel and 1999’s Miss Czech Republic, Helena Houdová has been on the receiving end of a camera’s attention. But the 26-year-old now finds herself on the other side of the lens.

After an unpleasant arrest in Cuba Jan. 23 — during which she and a friend were kept under guard for almost 12 hours — Houdová is planning an exhibition featuring many of the photographs of Havana slums and health institutions that led to her detainment. It is set to open Feb. 22 at Langhans Gallery.

While Cuba’s communist regime would have visitors associate Havana with palm-lined avenues and beach-front restaurants, Houdová ‘s photos tell a different story: that of the plight of local AIDS patients in prisons and sanitariums, and the lives of the poor in shantytowns on the city’s outskirts.

Houdová smuggled the photos out of Cuba by hiding the digital memory chip on which they were stored in her bra.

Everything had started well for Houdová and her friend, Mariana Kroftová, 26, when they arrived in Cuba on Jan. 19. They came with a purpose: to find out whether Houdová ‘s charity, the Sunflower Foundation, could assist local children and those afflicted with AIDS. The humanitarian organization People in Need had put them in contact with two people in Havana: a man living with HIV, and the wife of a prominent doctor and dissident. Houdová and Kroftová met with them and explained that they wanted to see institutions and outlying neighborhoods. The man and woman acted as guides.

Among other sites, Houdová and Kroftová toured a sanitarium filled with suffering AIDS patients. In an interview with The Prague Post, Kroftová said the facility was “desperate.”

“These were HIV-positive people, and they have no other choice but to be there because they are not allowed to work if they are HIV-positive,” she said. “The government puts them into these places which are so hidden, so far away, and the conditions are just terrible there.”

It was late on a Monday afternoon when Houdová and Kroftová were confronted by a member of the Revolutionary Committee, who yelled at them for taking pictures and summoned a member of the secret police, who escorted them to a nearby police station.

At some point she slipped the camera’s memory chip into her shirt and told police that she had erased the pictures.

Hours passed. Eventually the two women were taken to the immigration police, where they faced tougher questions. They stonewalled investigators, Kroftová says, pretending not to understand the questions being asked. At about 3 a.m., authorities presented the two with papers to sign, asking them to name their guides and admit to participating in “counterrevolutionary activities.” They both refused. Sometime later, less-complicated documents appeared, requiring the two to pledge not to engage in counterrevolutionary activities like taking pictures.

Houdová and Kroftová were let go, but ordered to remain at the same hotel for the remainder of their trip. The two took walks and were followed. They were monitored inside the hotel as well.

Views of the arrest differed among Cuban and Czech authorities afterward.

“The girls were arrested because they deliberately waged a campaign against Cuba in cooperation with Cuban dissidents,” Aymee Hernandez, Cuba’s chargé d’affaires in Prague, told reporters.

The Czech Foreign Affairs Ministry considered the explanation unsatisfactory. “The Cuban police clearly violated international law,” spokesman Richard Krpač said.