Dr. Oscar Biscet is spending this Christmas in a Cuban dungeon. It’s unlikely he will be permitted visitors. His human contact will be limited to his jailer and his violent cellmate, who was purposely chosen to keep Dr. Biscet company.
Dr. Biscet was sentenced by the Castro regime for the crime of “disrespect,” a crime committed by thousands of other Cuban political prisoners. He will likely remain in prison until Castro’s death, when it is hoped that Cuba will be liberated from the despot’s tyranny.
However, at a recent birthday celebration for Elián Gonzalez, Castro proclaimed that anyone who believes Cuba’s totalitarian system would not survive his death is an “idiot.”
And why shouldn’t it survive his death? After all, we’re told he’s put into place a remarkable system. For decades, academics, entertainers, civil-rights activists, left-leaning politicians, and other elites have journeyed to Cuba for audiences with Castro, and have returned proclaiming his wisdom, humor, and compassion. His health-care system is free! (To those allowed access.) Cuban literacy rates are stratospheric! (Although the reading selection is, um, limited.) Happy children dance in the streets singing El Comandante’s praises; he is the protector of a tropical paradise threatened only by its proximity to an imperial, unenlightened behemoth to the north.
Elite opinion regarding Castro stands in vivid contrast to those who’ve experienced tyranny firsthand. Recently Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa, and Arpad Goncz–respectively the former presidents of Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Hungary–issued a joint letter urging Western nations to develop a unified policy to help the peaceful transition to democracy in Cuba.
Much of the impetus for the letter was Castro’s crackdown on organizers of the Varela Project and other Cuban pro-democracy movements. Those arrested were subject to Stalinist “trials” and sentenced to six- to 28-year prison terms.
The Varela Project, named for a 19th-century Cuban priest who opposed slavery, hopes to use Cuba’s own Communist constitution to gain basic human rights. The Cuban constitution provides that initiatives supported by the signatures of at least 10,000 Cubans may be put to a vote of the Cuban people. The Varela initiative seeks a number of rights truly free people take for granted: the right to free speech and assembly; the right to own property; the right to travel freely; the right to start and own a business; and the right to free and open elections.
Some might find it peculiar that the citizens of a member of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights would need to petition their government for the most fundamental of rights. Not Cuba’s foreign minister, Felipe Perez Roque: He declares that allegations of human-rights violations in Cuba are merely the product of the “wicked maneuvers” of the United States and its allies. He chastises those who challenge Cuba’s human-rights record for being unable to accept “the existence of diverse models of civil and political ordering.” Ah yes; murder, imprisonment, and torture celebrated in the name of diversity–the universal disinfectant.
Speaking before the 57th session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, Roque flatly asserted that there are no human-rights violations in Cuba. He then challenged the gathering to cite a single case of “torture, murder or disappearance in Cuba.”
Roque’s challenge is a formidable one indeed. Limiting oneself to a single case of torture, murder, or disappearance requires Spartan discipline. Admittedly, this is a regime of such prodigious moral authority that its leader was applauded by virtually all who attended the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance held in Durban, South Africa, in 2001. There, he inveighed against the brutal exploitation of the third world by the West, railed against the vicious, racist policies of the United States and…called for a tax on the U.S. GNP to fund reparations for people of color across the globe. As you might expect, Castro found no dissenters at the conference.
But Castro is still plagued by dissenters at home. This despite the fact that since 1998 he has permitted Cubans to celebrate Christmas, an act of benevolence that seems only to have generated even more grievances from the ingrates.
The litany of grievances can and has filled volumes. Perhaps chief among them is the inescapable requirement that Cubans think and act the right way, for failure to do so has profound consequences.
Reports from myriad human-rights organizations, as well as our own State Department, reveal that Castro’s Cuba remains a hybrid of the worst visions of Orwell and Kafka. The Caribbean gulag so beloved by the world’s elite is a land marked by suffocating conformity and deadly caprice. Its citizens are oppressed by a dictator fond of the game Solzhenitsyn called the Big Solitaire: No Cuban can be sure that he won’t at any moment be arrested, detained, or imprisoned for offenses rarely real, and usually imagined.
The Varela Project stalled when the government “suggested” citizens sign a counter-initiative making socialism an irrevocable part of the Cuban constitution. The counter-petition was signed by a mere 99.37 percent of the eligible voters.
Although the leaders of the Varela Project and other pro-democracy movements were imprisoned after perfunctory “trials,” others aren’t even afforded this right. Not that it would matter, since Cuba’s ostensibly independent court system is completely controlled by Fidel “First the Verdict, Then the Trial” Castro. A trial by a jury of one’s peers is a luxury–”juries” are rarely empanelled in Cuba. And while the accused are provided lawyers, they, too, are controlled by the dictator.
By most accounts, imprisoned dissidents such as Dr. Biscet are denied even the basic accoutrements of human dignity. The scale of deprivation, however, can’t be accurately assessed, since Castro routinely denies human-rights organizations inspection privileges, and since hundreds of accounts reveal that a gruesome fate awaits the pro-democracy supporters, journalists, and freedom lovers who dare to question the system.
Prisoners are routinely denied medical treatment and adequate food. Tuberculosis, hepatitis, and parasitic infections are rampant. (Nestor Garcia Valdez contracted tuberculosis after being placed in a cell with other prisoners who had the disease and were left untreated.) The punishment for not fervently embracing socialist ideals is being placed in cells with violent, psychotic, or sexually abusive criminals. Prisoners are often forced to wash their clothes in water filled with feces and urine. Visitation by family and clergy is typically prohibited.
Being sent to one of Castro’s prisons requires little effort. Cubans are frequently arrested for the crimes of “disrespect” or “being dangerous.” One can be dangerous simply by “demonstrating a propensity not to abide by socialist norms.” A standard this nebulous is a perfect tool for terrorizing the population into obeisance: Strict adherence to socialist norms is the only (but not sure) way to avoid designation as “dangerous.” Any criticism of the regime, its leaders, or socialism renders one dangerous, as does mere possession of foreign newspapers or magazines.
The “dangerous” tag could come from a number of sources. Surveillance is ubiquitous; informants are everywhere. Mail, telephone calls, and e-mail are intercepted by the Department of State Security. Any hint of nonconformity may result in arrest and/or eviction. The regime routinely incites neighbors and coworkers, banded together in so-called rapid-response brigades, to attack the person and/or property of anyone failing to toe the party line. Human-rights and pro-democracy groups may not freely assemble. (Castro even prohibited public commemoration of the 1994 sinking of “the 13th of March” tugboat by state-security police that resulted in the deaths of 41 individuals, many of them young children.)
Castro controls all media. Journalists may not say or print anything contrary to the party line, otherwise they may be detained or imprisoned. Once imprisoned, journalists (or any dissident) may be beaten, tortured, deprived of medical care, and subjected to shock therapy. Some have suffered brain damage and internal bleeding.
None of this has diminished Castro in the eyes of the elites. He delights them as a charming revolutionary who insouciantly tweaks the uptight, overbearing right-wingers in the U.S. To these elites, Castro is no less than a socialist Santa Claus.
And what an inspiring, romantic leader! Speaking before the Durbin conference, Castro declared: “I believe in the mobilization and struggle of the peoples! I believe in the idea of justice! I believe in truth! I believe in man!”
Mr. Castro, if you truly believe in the struggle of the peoples, you’ll endorse the Varela Project and hold the free elections for which it calls. Lift the restrictions on free speech and assembly. Call off your terror squads.
If you believe in justice, open your filthy prisons filled with those who are struggling for the people. Stop your torture, your sham trials, and your summary executions. Extradite the terrorists, traitors, and criminals for whom you’ve provided safe haven.
If you believe in truth, let ordinary Cubans tell their stories of mutilation, rape, torture, assassination, and oppression without subjecting them or their families to persecution. Let Cubans read whatever they wish. And confess to all of your sycophants throughout the world that your “revolution” has been a hellish charade.
If you believe in man, let Cubans live their lives without every facet being controlled by the omnipresent apparatchiks. And recognize that while you may have a belief in man, the majority of the people on your island have a belief in God–a belief that hasn’t been extinguished by four decades of oppression, and that yearns to be expressed freely.
And then, Mr. Castro, if you truly believe all these things you proclaim, step down now and go away.
–Peter Kirsanow is a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.