Think of the world’s most prominent human-rights advocates, and names like Burma’s Aung San Suu Kyi and China’s Liu Xiaobo come readily to mind. Now, with the world’s attention fixed on the Middle East, we are starting to learn about some of the emerging reformers across the Middle East.
But there’s an inspirational human-rights advocate only 90 miles from our shores whose story too few Americans have heard. On March 11, the Cuban government released Dr. Oscar Biscet after eight years of brutal incarceration.
My twin brother, Jordan Allott, has made a documentary film called Oscar’s Cuba, which tells the moving story of Dr. Biscet and others fighting peacefully for democracy in Cuba.
Biscet, a medical doctor, first drew the attention of the Castro regime for exposing late-term abortion practices on the island in the 1980s and ’90s. Because of his activism, Biscet and his wife, Elsa Morejon, a nurse, were expelled from Cuba’s National Health System in 1998.
Undeterred, Biscet continued his peaceful fight for democracy, founding and leading several human-rights groups, including the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights. Biscet was arrested 27 times between 1998 and 1999 for criticizing the regime.
In 1999, Biscet was sentenced to three years in prison for “dishonoring national symbols” after protesting Cuba’s lack of freedom by displaying a Cuban flag upside down.
Released in early 2003, Biscet was re-imprisoned after just 37 days of freedom and handed a 25-year sentence for “acts against the sovereignty and independence of the national territory.” Biscet’s arrest was a prelude to the government’s “Black Spring” crackdown on dissent, during which 75 pro-democracy Cuban journalists and activists were imprisoned with decades-long sentences.
Most of the Black Spring prisoners have been released over the last eight months following an agreement struck between Raul Castro, Cuba’s president, and Cardinal Jaime Lucas Ortega y Alamino, the Catholic Archbishop of Havana.
Many fear that Biscet’s freedom will be short-lived. The regime has a long history of releasing political prisoners just long enough to elicit economic and political concessions, then violently cracking down on dissent once it gets what it needs or after the media’s focus has shifted.
It is unlikely that Biscet will keep his head down. After his release, Biscet told the AFP news agency in Havana, “It goes without saying that I will continue in the opposition because even in jail I did not give up my questioning attitude toward this government and the abuses it commits.”
The Castro regime is right to fear Biscet. He is charismatic, deeply principled, highly intelligent, and an inspiration to all those he meets — from the world leaders who have taken up his cause to the common criminals with whom he has been imprisoned.
In 2007, President Bush presented Biscet, in absentia, with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civilian award. Leading politicians from around the world, including U.S. congressman Christopher Smith and Hungary’s prime minister, recently nominated Biscet for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize for his dedication to “non-violent social change.”
Oscar’s Cuba has been screened across the United States, Europe, and even inside Cuba. It has screened at film festivals and before a packed house in Congress, and is currently making its way around American colleges and universities. The film includes footage and interviews from Jordan’s two trips to Cuba, as well as an original musical score by music legend Arturo Sandoval.
Many people ask: Could a revolution like those erupting across the Middle East take place in Cuba? It’s possible, of course, but unlikely at present. The Castro regime shrewdly exiles the vast majority of its most troublesome political opponents. Almost all of the Black Spring prisoners freed in the current round of releases were forcibly exiled to Spain.
But a few of the most resolute reformers have vowed to continue working for change on the island. Which raises another question: How long will Biscet remain free?
Biscet himself hinted at the answer in a recent phone conversation with Jordan. During a rare call before he was released from El Combinado Del Este Prison outside Havana, Biscet said:
I am very grateful to you Americans, to your human rights organizations, to you, Jordan, for all you have done. And I ask you to continue to support us in reaching our rights, those that you and many other nations in the world already have. [Translated from Spanish.]
Biscet’s freedom may depend in part on how much support he and other Cuban democrats receive from America. But in order to support them, we must first learn their stories.
— Daniel Allott is senior writer at American Values and a Washington fellow at the National Review Institute. He also is associate producer of Oscar’s Cuba, a documentary film about Cuban prisoner of conscience Dr. Oscar Biscet.