Czech ambassador says his country’s experiences may be useful to Cuba’s transition to democracy

For the Czech Republic’s ambassador to the United States, Petr Gandalovic, Cuba’s future might well follow the path of his country’s past.

His European nation of 10 million people lived under Communist rule from 1948 to 1989, when the Velvet Revolution led by dissident and playwright Vaclav Havel ushered in a peaceful, if at times, rocky transition to democracy.

“One day when Cubans get their freedom they will face the same challenges,” Gandalovic said during a meeting Wednesday with editors and reporters at the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald. “We have a lot of experience to offer.”

Cuban ruler Raúl Castro’s recent economic reforms have been positive, he said, “but we have no illusions that things have changed significantly” in the government’s respect for human rights.

The Czech Republic and its prior incarnation as Czechoslovakia have long been strong supporters of Cuba’s dissident and civil society groups, hosting training sessions for them in Prague and giving them access to the Internet at the embassy in Havana.

Several of the dissidents allowed to travel abroad after the Jan. 14 easing of Cuba’s migration controls were received in Prague by Foreign Minister Jan Kohout and his predecessor, Karel Schwarzenberg.

Gandalovic was in Miami for Tuesday’s kick-off of the Vaclav Havel Initiative for Human Rights and Diplomacy as part of Florida International University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

The Initiative, designed to provide training, study programs, research and policy analysis on democratic transitions around the world, is headed by the former Czech ambassador to the United States, Martin Palous.

Its first project will be “Preparing Miami for democratic transition in Cuba,” funded with a two year grant from the Knight Foundation, according to an FIU announcement.

Tuesday’s kickoff included a performance of the multimedia play Anticodes, based on a collection of Havel’s poetry and performed by the Czech Republic’s famous Laterna Magika theater troupe.

Gandalovic also joined a ceremony in Miami on Tuesday where the Cuban Democratic Directorate awarded the “Pedro Luis Boitel Freedom” prize for 2013 to four anti-Castro activists, including one jailed for 37 years and a former Bacardi president.

• Jose Manuel Rodriguez Navarro, an activist in the Eastern Democratic Alliance, based in the eastern towns of Guantánamo and Baracoa, who was arrested in October and sentenced to four years in prison for “social pre-dangerousness.”

• Armando Sosa Fortuny, who was jailed for fighting against the Castro dictatorship from 1960 to 1978. He went into exile in Miami but returned in 1994 with four other armed exiles and was captured after a shootout in which one Cuban was killed. Sosa Fortuny was sentenced to 30 years.

• Havana activist Julián Enrique Martínez Báez, secretary general of the Cuban Human Rights Party, freed in 2006 after serving three years in prison.

• Manuel Jorge Cutillas, a former president of Bacardi Limited and descendant of the company’s founder who was active for years in Cuban democracy campaigns. He died in November at the age of 81.

The Boitel prize, created in 2001 by the Directorate and seven independent groups from Eastern and Central Europe, is named after a Castro opponent who was jailed in 1961 and died alter a lengthy jailhouse hunger strike in 1972.

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