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As someone who often agrees with actor-activist Danny Glover but who also wishes that Fidel Castro would go into long-overdue retirement, I was disappointed to see the star of "Lethal Weapon" sign a recent letter in support of the Bearded One. But I am not joining the Internet-driven movement of Castro critics who want to punish Glover in his pocketbook. I have one simple reason: That's what Castro wants us to do.

As he uses such excuses as "anti-terrorism" and "state security" to crack down on free speech, Castro wants to be able to claim that Americans use similar excuses to crack down on free speech. In this war of words, we should avoid giving the dictator more ammunition.

The letter in question, which Glover signed along with calypso star Harry Belafonte, author Gabriel Garcia Marquez and about 160 other artists and intellectuals, appeared in the May 1 issue of Granma, Cuba's main state-run newspaper.

You may recall that Belafonte last made big news by calling Secretary of State Colin Powell a "house slave" in the Bush administration. That disappointed me, too. At the time, Powell actually was trying hard to avoid war and work with the United Nations. Belafonte supported that strategy, but apparently couldn't resist taking a cheap shot at Powell anyway. If anything, the controversy enhanced Powell's stature and diminished Belafonte's.

The Granma letter backed Cuba's right to defend itself against a supposed American "campaign" against the Castro government. "The harassment of Cuba could serve as an excuse for an invasion," the letter declares.

It could, but most likely will not. An invasion of Cuba hardly fits the Bush administration's current foreign policy. The Castro regime poses little real threat to our national security, stripped of its missiles and stranded by the collapse of the Soviet Union. Besides, Cuba has no oil wells.

Yet, I don't think Glover or Belafonte pose a threat to our national security, either. If anything, their freedom to disagree with their government and still walk around freely speaks volumes about how American freedoms really work. That message resonates in many hearts in Cuba, where many fundamental human rights remain a distant dream.

And that makes the Granma letter's timing particularly troubling. It follows the Cuban government's dramatic jailing of 75 writers and political dissidents whose only real crime appears to be that they wanted free speech, a free press, the right to vote freely and other such democratic niceties.

That's enough for Cuba's government to tag you as a subversive and, in a perverse way, it has a point. Free expression inevitably subverts a totalitarian dictatorship.

Now, outraged defenders of freedom like Judicial Watch and conservative MSNBC talk show host Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman from Florida, have urged the public to let MCI know that they want Glover disconnected as a spokesman in their ads.

Defenders of Glover, including TransAfrica, the human rights group of which Glover is board chairman, have mounted a counter-campaign to let MCI know that their employment of Glover is appreciated.

After avoiding interviews on the topic, MCI released a statement saying it chose Glover "because of his high consumer appeal and ratings," but also noted that as part of a company repositioning, it "is currently reviewing . . . options for new product campaigns that are more in line with our corporate brand advertising work."

Glover told me by telephone that he had not heard anything negative from MCI and was "still slated to do two more spots."

He also defended the letter as a call for "Cuba's right to self-determination," not an endorsement of Castro's human rights policies. It is my hope that he and his fellow letter writers also will come around to supporting the right of Cubans to self-expression, as some fellow liberals like Susan Sontag and Nobel-Prize wining Portuguese writer Jose Saramago, a longtime Castro friend, have done.

As a free speech fan, I believe that a combination of good information and reason persuades people more convincingly than punishment does, whether it comes from government or from a boycott threat. America's freedoms work, even when you are dealing with people who don't always seem to appreciate them.

Chicago Tribune

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