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AS INTERNATIONAL SUPPORT GROWS FOR A "VELVET REVOLUTION" IN CUBA, SO DOES SLOVAK INVOLVEMENT

Et tu, Slovakia?

SLOVAKIA hosted a conference for the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba this week, indicating a seismic shift in Slovak foreign policy towards Cuba.
Meanwhile, Slovak non-governmental organisations (NGO) have been actively supporting Cuba's political dissidents, and several Slovak representatives have criticised the Castro regime for human rights violations, especially after the Cuban government detained a number of people accused of conspiring with the US.
Slovakia's increasing involvement was last seen September 20, when Bratislava hosted a conference supporting the democratic movement in Cuba. The conference came after a meeting held in Prague on September 16 through 19 by the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba.

SLOVAKIA hosted a conference for the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba this week, indicating a seismic shift in Slovak foreign policy towards Cuba.

Meanwhile, Slovak non-governmental organisations (NGO) have been actively supporting Cuba's political dissidents, and several Slovak representatives have criticised the Castro regime for human rights violations, especially after the Cuban government detained a number of people accused of conspiring with the US.

Slovakia's increasing involvement was last seen September 20, when Bratislava hosted a conference supporting the democratic movement in Cuba. The conference came after a meeting held in Prague on September 16 through 19 by the International Committee for Democracy in Cuba.

The committee, born out of former Czech President Václav Havel efforts to establish global democracy, called for an immediate release of all political prisoners in Cuba. It appealed to governments of the Visegrad [Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic] and the Vilnius group [Baltic region] to admit Cuban dissidents and their families to their embassies in Havana.

The conference, organised by People in Peril, a Slovak NGO, provided a forum for many pro-democratic figures from Cuba to speak out, including Havana-born writer and journalist Carlos Alberto Montaner, and Center for a Free Cuba Director Frank Calzon.

Speaker of Parliament Pavol Hrušovský opened the conference by saying that 15 years after the fall of the communist regime, Slovakia's attitude toward Cuba has changed.

"Although Slovak politics is reserved on the issue, there are many politicians out there who are not indifferent to Cuba and its people," Hrušovský told the daily SME.

Hrušovský, along with Slovak ex-President Michal Kováč and 18 other well-known public Slovak figures, signed an open letter to Cuba's leader Fidel Castro in March 2003 requesting the immediate release of Cuban political prisoners.

"Especially here in Slovakia, we cannot keep quiet about practices that suppress human dignity and freedom," Hrušovký said at the time.

NGOs feel that there is a positive shift not only in the government but also in the Slovak public's awareness about Cuba's struggle for democracy.

"We are observing increasing interest in some groups, for example, the NGOs, the media, and citizens who have visited Cuba as tourists," programme manager of the Pontis Foundation Milan Nič told The Slovak Spectator.

According to Nič, hundreds of individuals have donated to the Pontis Foundation and People in Peril on behalf of Cuban political prisoners and their families. A recent fundraising campaign raised about Sk130 thousand (E3,000), and enabled the groups to deliver aid to 16 families of dissidents.

Nič believes that politicians, who have been dissidents themselves, naturally support the idea of solidarity with Cuban dissidents. He provided the following names as examples: Chairman of the Human Rights Committee László Nagy and František Mikloško of the Christian Democratic Movement; Hrušovský; EU Commissioner Ján Figel; and State Secretary of the Slovak Foreign Affairs Ministry József Berényi.

Nič pointed out that the sympathisers represent only two political parties: the Christian Democratic Movement and the Hungarian Coalition Party.

"We are dissappointed by lack of interest in the human rights and democratisation agenda among other parties in the parliament, especially the SDKÚ [Slovak Democratic and Christian Union] and Smer, both of whom claim to have a strong foreign policy dimension," he told The Spectator.

Foreign policy towards Cuba changed most dramatically two years ago.

"The biggest factor was probably the new common position of the EU after March 2003, when Castro's regime imprisoned 75 dissidents and civic activists," Nič explained.

"The Slovak Foreign Ministry increased its monitoring of human rights violations, and instructed the Slovak embassy in Havana to add leading dissidents to guest lists for official receptions," he said.

Communist Czechoslovakia helped Cuba build up its infrastructure and industry and provided education and training to many Cubans. When the US ended diplomatic relations with Cuba in 1961, the country was represented in the US by the Czechoslovak embassy until December 1990. Current Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan served at the Slovak embassy in Washington from 1977 to 1981.

Amnesty International reported that 77 people, possible prisoners of conscience, have been detained in Cuba since March 18, 2003. Those detained include journalists, owners of private libraries, and members of illegal opposition parties, all of whom could face up to 20 years in prison.

For their part, Cuban representatives claim the country is just protecting its national interests against a US-supported effort to undermine its government.

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