Promoting democracy in Cuba can lead to jail

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."

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