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Posted December 18, 2009 by publisher in Legal Travel to Cuba

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Jan Bubenik went to Cuba to ``spread the hope’’ but did everything wrong.

Working on behalf of an American pro-democracy group, the former student leader of the Czech Velvet Revolution knocked on a Cuban dissident’s door and sat down to chat—then spent the night in a hotel in the same Ciego de Avila town. He was quickly picked up by Cuban authorities and jailed for more than three weeks.

“Nobody ever told me to look over my shoulder,’’ Bubenik said in a telephone interview from Prague. “They sent us like lambs to the slaughterhouse.’‘

Bubenik’s 2001 arrest was the last time a pro-democracy activist on assignment for an American organization was detained for more than a few days in Cuba—until a subcontractor was arrested Dec. 5 for reportedly distributing U.S.-funded laptops and mobile phones.

The cases underscore the danger democracy groups and humanitarian organizations face distributing aid and democracy materials in Cuba, where anything as benign as doling out church donations is illegal. But the clandestine voyages are carried out regularly by scores of travelers, armed with tourist visas and secret missions, who set out to dupe one of the best intelligence services in the world.

Experts say the missions are difficult but not impossible. But the latest arrest puts agencies contracted by the U.S. government to promote democracy in Cuba under increased pressure to provide security training and illustrates the lengths the Cuban government is willing to go to stall the programs.

The American arrested was working for Development Alternatives Inc., (DAI) a suburban Washington firm supervising $40 million in U.S. government aid for pro-democracy programs in Cuba. Saying it did not want to jeopardize the employee’s possible release, the organization declined to comment. The contractor’s name has not been released.

``When you send travelers to Cuba even to do good deeds, you are always scared for them,’’ said Teo Babún, who runs ECHO Cuba, a religious organization that last year dispatched travelers with cash for hurricane relief. ``They are walking into a country that has no diplomatic relations with the United States, where there is no embassy.’‘

Bubenik, whose trip was funded by the Freedom House, ultimately won his release through negotiations between a powerful Czech senator and then Cuban leader Fidel Castro. He endured three weeks of daily interrogations, sleep deprivation and psychological pressure.

``They would say things like, `Don’t you remember how it was in the old country?’ and even showed me a picture of me and my grandma,’’ he said. ``You wanted to say, `Eject! Eject! Get me out of here!’ ‘’

Bubenik, 41, a professional head hunter, said he’d tell anyone undertaking such an assignment to be clear on the risks—and understand that it’s not just their life at stake.

“Cuban state police are not as nimble as you think, but they are not stupid either,’’ he said. “We made the mistake of being exactly where they expected us.’‘

In an interview this summer with The Miami Herald, a Cuban activist in Santa Clara who works with such travelers said sometimes the volunteers forget where they are.

``This one guy came over here to do small business workshops and the next thing I know, he’s in a room full of people with the windows open standing in front of a big easel with something like `supply and demand’ written on it,’’ the activist said. ``I got hysterical. I told him: `Are you crazy? This is a communist country. You can’t be talking about capitalism with the windows open!’ ‘’

The Miami-based humanitarian worker finished the training session but was stopped at the Havana airport, where his computer was confiscated. The Cuban who told the story spoke on the condition that his name and the name of the group he works with not be published for security reasons.

“You guys leave, but we Cubans stay,’’ he said. “We are the ones who can go to prison for 25 years.’‘

Frank Calzón, who supervised such trips for more than 10 years for the Center for a Free Cuba, said he always briefs travelers first.

Once, a traveler was so eager to follow Calzón’s instructions that he brought the tip sheet with him. He had it in his pocket when arrested by state security, and it wound up published in the Cuban state newspaper.

``I tell them, `Don’t leave anything in the hotel, because the cleaning crew is going to go through your things. If you have a camera or pile of books, more than likely the crew is going to report it to security and they will put you under constant watch,’ ‘’ Calzón said. ``I said that once to an American traveling, and he said, `Oh really?’

“I knew right there that wasn’t a guy I wanted.’‘

All the travelers follow basic tips such as being sure to engage in tourist activities and not take taxis from the hotel. Bringing more than one computer or telephone raises red flags, experts said.

``If you bring two phones, they may let you in just to follow you,’’ Babún said.

James Cason, the former head of the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, said organizations used to send materials through the American diplomatic pouch, until the Cubans stopped deliveries.

``You can bring in one or two computers, and they will register it at customs when you arrive. If you don’t have it when you are leaving, you have to pay an enormous tax,’’ Cason said.

“They may even have followed the person off the plane. This is what they pay spooks for: to find out when people are coming from these organizations to Cuba. If you work for a human rights organization, it’s naive to think they don’t know who you are.’‘

That was the kind of information Bubenik said he never got from Freedom House.

“I understand it was quite an ordeal for him,’’ said Daniel Calingaert, Freedom House’s deputy director of programs. “But it’s only in a dictatorship like Cuba where travelers would need special preparation. It should be normal for visitors to travel in and out of country to talk to anyone about politics or any other subject.’‘

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