MEXICO CITY — CUBAN leader Fidel Castro Ruz doesn't like fax machines - at least not in the hands of the wrong people.
Over the past week, Cuba's security police have seized fax machines as part of a crackdown on independent journalists who transmit stories to foreign publications. In addition, more than 30 journalists, political dissidents, and human rights activists have been picked up.
Most of the journalists were released after a brief detention and interrogation, but the message was clear: Either cease your illegal activity or face a longer stay with us next time. The fax machines were not returned.
''This is harassment and attempted intimidation of the free press in Cuba, but it won't have the desired effect,'' says Rafael Solano, founder of Habana Press agency and one of the journalists detained. ''We all plan to continue doing our work.'' He was warned during an interrogation that the next time he was detained the ''full weight of the law'' would be used against him.
Mr. Solano, who was featured in a Monitor article in May, says his interrogators cited a recent report he aired over the American-funded Radio Marti on Cuba's environmental problems as the kind of work that would get him in trouble.
Dissident journalists generally face charges under two laws: one against disseminating ''enemy propaganda'' and the other known as the ''law of dangerousness,'' which is broadly used against anyone considered a danger to the government.
At least four journalists working with Habana Press were arrested, according to Solano, including one who had a fax machine seized. One of the most prominent journalists targeted by last week's crackdown was Nestor Baguer, president of Cuba's Association of Independent Journalists (APIC) and a frequent contributor to the Miami Herald and the Spanish-language Miami daily Nuevo Herald.
Mr. Baguer, who was not arrested, had his house searched. His telephone line was cut, and his fax machine - actually owned by the Paris-based free-press organization Reporters Without Borders, which Baguer represents in Cuba - was seized.
Cuba observers say this latest antipress action probably is not a new effort to eradicate the independent press. They say it more likely reflects official nervousness over last Friday's first anniversary of the sinking of a boatload of would-be refugees by a Cuban military boat.
''It's a typical roundup before a major date,'' says one Western diplomat in Havana, noting that the government wants to preempt any activity that might spark the kind of riots that rocked Havana last August.
The July 1994 sinking of a boat in waters off Cuba's northern coast killed 41 refugees and has become a rallying point for Cuban dissidents and the exile community in Miami. Havana's waterfront boulevard and principal gathering spot, the Malecon, was closed off to most traffic July 13 and kept under heavy police surveillance.
Others say the harassment of journalists is simply more of the same. ''There's a cyclical pattern to the government's approach to these journalists and other dissidents,'' says Ricardo Trotti, press freedom coordinator for the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA) in Miami. ''They let out a little rein for a few months, and then they come back harder than ever.''
The IAPA last week sent a letter to Castro condemning the ''campaign of harassment'' that it says started with the arrest of an APIC-associated journalist July 3. The hemispheric press organization called on Cuba to ''stop these intimidating practices.''
Some Cuba human rights observers say the recent campaign indicates that several high-profile steps taken by the Cuban government over past months to address human rights concerns are no more than window dressing.
''They've been working hard since about November to improve their image, but this just shows there's no real change in the structure of human rights limitations,'' says Joanne Mariner, a researcher at Human Rights Watch/Americas in New York.
Most observers say the Castro regime is worried enough about its international image that the antipress campaign will go little beyond harassment and other actions - like confiscating fax machines - that make the journalists' work difficult.
''I understand some of the [targeted journalists] were told they would be jailed, some received anonymous phone threats, and some were threatened with disappearance,'' says the Western diplomat. ''Fortunately, the government tends not to make good on the worst of its threats.''