These are difficult times for the many good-hearted, open-minded folk in the West who, down the years, have retained a sneaking regard, perhaps amounting to affection, for that scourge of America, Fidel Castro. Six months ago, while the situation in Iraq was dominating the world news, his government rounded up over 75 writers, academics, librarians and journalists who had openly supported democracy, tried them in secret, and handed out jail sentences of between 14 and 28 years.
The conditions under which they have been kept have been so horrific that several are seriously ill, some have been injured after attacks by fellow prisoners, while others have over recent weeks gone on hunger strike in an attempt to draw the world's attention to what is going on.
In spite of government repression, a coalition of dissident groups have this week published a "Letter of Fundamental Rights and Responsibilities of Cubans", arguing for economic and political freedoms and citing the support of 35,000 Cubans. Three heavyweights of recent Eastern European history, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and the former Hungarian president Arpad Gönz, have weighed in with an open letter to European leaders about the worsening situation.
It is news that western Fidelistas, for whom the great bearded one has become the cosy, acceptable face of dictatorship, will not want to hear. In recent years, rock stars, actors and film directors have visited Havana to be photographed with Fidel to ratchet up their liberal credibility. The astonishing music of Cuba, popularised by Ry Cooder's championing of Compay Segundo and the Buena Vista Social Club, has confirmed the country as a sort of sunlit idyll of pre-capitalism. The trend-conscious film director Oliver Stone, having directed an obsequious documentary about El Comandante, has described his hero as "one of the Earth's wisest people" and "a very driven man, a very moral man."
It is easy to dismiss the adoration of Fidelistas as liberal gullibility, but it is US policy that has turned Castro into an unlikely hero. As anyone who has visited Cuba will know, it is a wonderful, seductive country with music in every bar, a landscape relatively unscarred by the holiday industry, and a people who seem uncorrupted by the tacky hand-me-down version of American popular culture to be found in other poorer countries. By its idiotic trade embargo, the US has allowed the dictator who runs what should be a happy island to present himself as a heroic uncompromising David, standing firm against the his imperialist Goliath of a neighbour.
It is a good line, as I know to my cost. After spending two weeks in Cuba in 1998, I wrote a somewhat sentimental piece which suggested that, for all its failings, there was much to be said for the Cuban way of life. It had escaped the loathsome vulgarity of capitalism. Government expenditure was on health and education. Cubans had an enviable sense of community and pride.
It was only when serving on a committee for the writers' organisation PEN that I became aware of the full, ugly realities of Cuban life. Those who are now serving long jail sentences are not radical dissidents but merely ordinary, brave people who, by publishing articles, lending books or openly expressing opinions, have incurred the full wrath of the "very moral man" who is their leader.
Raúl Rivero Castañeda, a 57-year-old poet and librarian, was given a 20-year sentence for signing an open letter, and is being held in a cell measuring three square metres. Marta Beatriz Roque, an author and economist also doing 20 years, has been on hunger strike, suffers from rheumatism and has lost 30lbs since being in prison. Miguel Galván Gutiérrez, journalist, 26-year sentence, is held in solitary confinement in a darkened cell with no visits. So the list goes on.
The letter from Havel, Walesa and Gönz suggests that, while the American approach has been disastrous, there is also something wrong-headed in the current European policy of dialogue and investment. It is the duty of the world, they argue, to support the dissidents of Cuba "irrespective of how long the Cuban Stalinists cling to power".
As for the sentimental Fidelistas of the west, it is time for them to abandon their self-deceiving fantasy and support the campaigns of PEN, Amnesty International and others to bring basic human rights to those who are paying such a terrible price for daring to believe in freedom.
Those considering Cuba as a holiday destination may also reflect on the hidden cost paid for Fidel's revolution. The sun may shine, the music may play but, out of sight, its jails are full of prisoners of conscience. El Comandante, with his cigar, beard and showbiz friends, is as grim and brutal a figure as any of the old, dark-suited communist dictators of Eastern Europe.Reuse content