The Corner

Like and Unlike Mandela

On the homepage today is a piece about Oscar Biscet. He is the Cuban physician who is probably the leading democracy activist in his country. In mid-March, the Castros released him from prison, where he had been for about twelve years. They wanted to exile him, as they have many other prisoners of conscience. But Biscet kicked hard against this. He had international support, too. He has been released in Cuba on a kind of parole. I talked to him about three weeks after he left prison.

He has been called “the Nelson Mandela of Cuba,” and I thought I’d say just a word about this, here in the Corner. One reason is, I was discussing the subject with Paul Johnson yesterday. We are on an NR cruise, down the Seine. (Or is it up?) I tell you this not to boast. But to say, “Come on the next one!”

Mandela has had a rich, complicated, and important life. In some respects, it has been heroic. But we should remember that he was not a prisoner of conscience. That is a specific term coined by Amnesty International, and it refers to a person who has been imprisoned for his beliefs. AI was a strong supporter of Mandela. But they were not able to classify him as a prisoner of conscience. He was an advocate of armed struggle, of the gun and the bomb. He favored the violent overthrow of the apartheid government. He worked toward that end. He had been trained as a guerrilla in Ethiopia and Algeria. He returned home to practice what he had learned. While in prison, he was offered release, if only he would renounce the armed struggle. He refused.

Now, we may say this is good or bad, admirable or not. There has been much vigorous debate on this. But I’m just dealing in the simple facts at the moment.

Oscar Biscet is a lifelong and steadfast advocate of nonviolence. His models are Thoreau, Gandhi, MLK, and the Dalai Lama. He has Biblical models as well. In some ways, he’s like Mandela, yes. He is black. He is brave. He’s a rallying point for resistance in his country. He’s an inspiration. But he is unlike Mandela in the way I have mentioned.

Wouldn’t it be something if Biscet were, oh, a fiftieth as well known as Mandela? The reason he is not is clear: International opinionmakers hated the apartheid government (and rightly so). They are not so hostile to the Castro dictatorship, are they? Far from it.

Anyway, strength to Oscar Biscet’s hands (and come on our cruises, which you’ll enjoy so much).

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