Nearly 40 years after his death, Ernesto “Che” Guevara is in the news again. He’s the subject of a new film entitled The Motorcycle Diaries about his coming of age during a trek through South America. The movie was screened at the Sundance Film Festival, where it reportedly received several standing ovations. Among the luminaries in attendance was former Vice President Al Gore.
Che Guevara remains an icon throughout much of America, and, indeed, the world. His surname is superfluous. Everyone knows Che
! His image adorns college dormitories and bookstores; Che t-shirts are ubiquitous at every antiwar march and anti-globalization protest. New books about the life of the “revolutionary” are published every year.
Throughout much of the ’60s and ’70s, Che was the archetype of rebellion against repressive authority. The hagiology portrays him as a selfless physician born to wealth, who heroically spurned the corrupt oligarchy that supported his bourgeois lifestyle, and who then became a guerilla fighting for the downtrodden. Scores of plays and seminars are a testament to the esteem in which he is held by bien pensants. All of this for a delusional, egocentric thug who delighted in summarily executing anyone he deemed an “enemy of the revolution.” But at least he was photogenic.
In contrast, only a handful of Americans have ever heard of Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet. Like Che, Biscet is a physician. He’s at least as photogenic. And his life story is arguably more compelling and inarguably more honorable. But don’t expect posters of Biscet to grace campus bookstores. There probably won’t be any movies about him, and definitely none attended by the glitterati. No college symposia will be dedicated to Biscet’s political philosophy.
Biscet’s story is a bit inconvenient for the sophisticates who embrace the romantic vision of Castro’s valiant struggle on behalf of third-world victims of capitalist exploitation. The journalists, entertainers, left-leaning politicians, and civil-rights activists who are treated by Castro to guided tours of the Cuban “paradise” never hear of Biscet, or of the thousands like him who are brutalized in Castro’s prisons for having the audacity to desire freedom of speech, assembly, and religion; the right to own property or perhaps start a business; the right to be free from the constant threat of arbitrary persecution–in short, for wanting freedom from the tyranny Che helped create.
Dr. Biscet is serving a 25-year sentence for supporting human rights by peacefully staging a hunger strike in his home. He’s a principal of the Varela Project, an initiative to secure basic human rights for the Cuban people.
This is Biscet’s second stint in prison. He was initially released on October 31, 2002, after having served three years for the crime of “disrespect,” only to be arrested again barely a month later.
Reliable information on Biscet’s status is difficult to obtain. Castro isn’t eager to publicize his dungeons. What details emerge come primarily from Biscet’s wife, other prisoners, and his brief yet powerful letters smuggled from prison, the combined texts of which evoke Rev. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” though with descriptions of appalling degradation and brutality.
Dr. Biscet has seen his wife twice in the last ten months. Her most recent visit, on December 30, lasted only 15 minutes.
Biscet’s physical condition is in dangerous decline. He’s rail thin, having lost an estimated 40 pounds. He suffers from severe hypertension. In addition to being malnourished, he has lost several teeth during his latest confinement.
Biscet’s prison cell is the stuff of a Victor Hugo nightmare; tiny, filthy, and shared with an almost uncontrollably violent cellmate. He has no windows and hasn’t seen sunlight in weeks. He’s afforded no medicines or toiletries. Other than the two visits from his wife, he’s permitted no visitors, correspondence, or other reading materials. Nonetheless, he inspires others with his repeated acts of defiance against his persecutors.
The probability that Biscet will survive his sentence isn’t great. He has but two avenues of hope.
The first is liberation after Castro’s death. Speculation about Castro’s imminent demise swirled in the last two weeks after the visiting mayor of Bogota, Luis Eduardo Garzon, described Castro as appearing gravely ill. But while Castro is 77 years old and life-insurance agents aren’t exactly rushing to sell him a policy, semiannual reports of Castro on his deathbed have been coming out of Cuba for more than 20 years. Moreover, there’s no guarantee Cuba will turn into a democratic republic immediately upon Castro’s death.
The other hope is perhaps even more farfetched–that widespread publicity of Biscet’s plight and that of other political prisoners will shame the dictator into releasing him. Castro is not known for yielding to this kind of pressure, although it’s conceivable that after a period of protest Biscet could be released without fanfare.
Regardless, the unfortunate reality is that Dr. Biscet will never receive the kind of coverage that would cause Castro even the slightest discomfort. The media outlets with the capacity to generate the requisite publicity seem more intent on focusing on the Bush administration’s purported lack of “balance” and “nuance” toward Castro’s regime. And human-rights activists seem more occupied with the plight of enemy combatants who daily profess a desire to obliterate anything and everything American (and whose own accommodations on the Caribbean island are, in comparison to Biscet’s, opulent) than with a humble but charismatic doctor who has professed nothing but admiration for American democracy.
Consequently, the odds are that a true champion for liberty will spend his remaining days wasting away in unspeakable privation and pain. In the meantime, the memory of Castro’s homicidal lieutenant will be cheered by the elite for years to come. After all, he looked really cool in a beret.
–Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.