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Prominent Cuban dissidents held

©Associated Press

March 21, 2003

HAVANA -- Cuban agents arrested a leading independent journalist and a democracy activist Thursday, as a major crackdown on dissent began targeting the communist government's best-known critics.

At least 65 dissidents have been rounded up in the three-day sweep that began after President Fidel Castro's government claimed some of its opponents were conspiring with U.S. diplomats to undermine the island's leadership.

The detentions of journalist Raul Rivero and of Hector Palacios -- an organizer of a movement aimed at bringing democratic reform to Cuba, known as the Varela Project -- were the latest in a series of moves that have further strained U.S.-Cuba relations.

"He is only a man who writes, he is not a politician," Rivero's wife, Blanca Reyes, said after agents led her husband from their home and sped away in a Russia-made Lada sedan.

Rivero's 83-year-old mother wept quietly in a white wooden rocker.

"He knew they would come for him in this wave of repression," said Reyes. "But until then he was informing the entire world what was happening here."

Later, the state agents took Palacios into custody, after an extensive search of his home, said veteran rights activist Elizardo Sanchez.

The agents also arrested several people at a home where they were fasting to demand the release of political prisoners.

The latest detentions brought to at least 65 the number of people arrested during three days of sweeps, the nongovernmental Cuban Commission on Human Rights and Reconciliation said. At least a dozen are independent journalists.

The group was investigating reports of at least 10 other arrests.

"We don't know how far this crackdown is going to go," said Sanchez, a leading rights activist. "The Cuban government wants to silence the dissident movement. But that is not possible."

There are believed to be at least hundreds of dissidents in Cuba. The government says many are conspiring with American diplomats in Cuba to drum up opposition to the socialist state.

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