WASHINGTON - I admit it. I've committed the same crime that Raul Rivero has allegedly committed.
I have criticized the Cuban government. I have done it in print, too. But hardly anyone in Cuba read it, except perhaps the state police. Political literature that criticizes Fidel Castro is technically illegal. A lot of things are technically illegal in Cuba. In countries like Cuba, the safest word for you to remember is, "Don't!"
Nor was anyone in Cuba legally allowed to read Mr. Rivero's critiques of the regime. But that did not stop Mr. Rivero, whom I visited last year, from becoming perhaps the island's most prominent living poet and independent journalist.
Since mid-March, Mr. Castro's goons have rounded up 78 human rights advocates, independent trade union leaders and independent journalists, including Mr. Rivero. All were charged with ambiguous state crimes, punishable by as much as life in prison, for allegedly "collaborating" with U.S. diplomats.
What kind of "collaboration"? The regime has not bothered to be very specific, and its "trials" have not been open to outside journalists or diplomats. By the time the courthouse doors opened again, Mr. Rivero, 57, was sentenced to 20 years in prison.
Most of those arrested were associated with the Varela Project, a courageous initiative that captured world attention and former President Jimmy Carter's endorsement during his visit to Cuba last year. It surprised the world and, by all indications, the Castro regime, by finding more than 30,000 people who were brave enough to put their signatures on a petition calling for free speech, free association, free enterprise and other reforms.
Cubans, Cuban-Americans and Cuba experts I have interviewed find it significant that the regime did not arrest Oswaldo Paya, leader of the Christian Liberation Movement and prime mover behind the Varela petitions. The old bearded fox apparently reasons that there's no need to make an international martyr of Mr. Paya. It is much easier for the regime to cut the heart out of the movement's support network.
But many of the experts are still scratching their heads wondering why Mr. Castro is hardening his heart like a biblical pharaoh now. He's spent the past decade trying to put a happy face on his tyranny to attract trade and tourism to replace the old Soviet Union's now-vanished million-dollars-a-day subsidies.
Now, while Uncle Sam's eyes are focused on Iraq, would seem to be a good time for Mr. Castro to sneak a crackdown past an international backlash. But the backlash has come anyway, from the European Union, the Roman Catholic Church, international human rights organizations and Capitol Hill, just as efforts to lift trade sanctions were beginning to make some headway.
In fact, Rep. Jeff Flake, a conservative Arizona Republican and one of the boldest advocates in the House for lifting sanctions, says he believes Mr. Castro's crackdown has come now precisely because Mr. Castro does not want U.S. sanctions lifted.
The last thing Mr. Castro wants, Mr. Flake told me in a telephone interview, is to have more American capitalism chipping away at the underpinnings of his island's teetering socialist experiment.
And I believe Mr. Flake is right. Mr. Castro passionately and personally hates capitalism, even the petty enterprise practiced by street vendors. He wants nothing more than to see dissenters leave his island. But Mr. Rivero, who was a kid when Mr. Castro took over in the 1950s, belongs to a different generation.
The new dissidents don't want to leave the island. They want to stay. They don't want to undo Mr. Castro's revolution. They only want it to listen to the people it purports to be saving.
They look to us in their hour of need and to the other freedom-loving people on this planet. We must not let them down.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.