‘I need to get to work,” says Dr. Óscar Elías Biscet. Are you familiar with him? He is perhaps the foremost Cuban democracy activist, a symbol of the general resistance to the Castro dictatorship. Has he been neglecting his work? Not exactly. For the past twelve years, essentially, he has been in prison, suffering the things that the regime’s prisoners have always suffered. George W. Bush gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. The recipient could not accept it in person, of course. But he has now been released from prison. The day, so long hoped for, by so many of us, was March 11. I spoke to him three weeks after.
Biscet was born in 1961 and has a wife, Elsa Morejón Hernández, and two children. He became a physician in the mid-1980s, specializing in internal medicine. A few years later, he embarked on human-rights activism. In 1994, he was charged with “dangerousness,” a very common charge. It means that the individual in question will not submit meekly to dictatorial rule. In 1997, he established the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights (“Lawton” being the name of the Havana neighborhood in which he lived). The organization, of course, is banned. In 1998, he spoke out strongly against abortion, particularly late-term abortion: In his work as a doctor, he saw ghastly things. The authorities responded harshly to his protest.
After being detained repeatedly — 26 times — Biscet was arrested in 1999 and thrown in prison for three years. He was released on Oct. 31, 2002, and had 36 days outside of prison. During this time, he worked on his “Democratic Principles for Cuba” and a civic project called “Club for Friends of Human Rights.” He was again arrested on Dec. 6, 2002, and underwent his ordeal until last March 11.
I found it somewhat amazing to hear his voice, after reading about him and writing about him for many years. His voice was low, grave, and resolute. We spoke by phone, Biscet in Havana, his questioner in New York. Serving as translator between us was Aramis Perez, of the Directorio Democrático Cubano in Miami.
Biscet has felt “a kind of ambivalence” in the last few weeks. Those are his words: “a kind of ambivalence.” “I’m happy to be able to return home to my wife, but I’m unhappy to see an entire people still without freedom.” In his view, Cuba as a whole is “the big prison” while El Combinado del Este, where he and so many other dissidents have been confined, is “the little prison.” “We who live under this dictatorship look to the sea and know that the sea is our prison bars.” Biscet further says, “This great, beautiful island of Cuba has been converted by the Castro brothers into their own personal estate.”
Why, in his estimation, did the government choose to release him? “Because of the economic crisis, coupled with the social and moral crisis. The government offers false expectations of democratic change. They do this so that free countries will give them economic support. My release is part of the effort to create false expectations.” The government’s overriding goal is “to be financed. They want more money, even as they impoverish the Cuban people, and, with money, they will remain in power.”
The government intended to exile Biscet to Spain, not release him in Cuba. They have exiled many prisoners in recent months. But Biscet kicked hard against this fate. He had international support, too (including multiple nominations for the Nobel peace prize). Instead of exiling him, the government released him on a kind of parole. Biscet is serving out his prison term beyond the gates of prison itself. His continued freedom depends on his “good conduct.” Why was he so set against exile? “Because I love the people of Cuba and want them to be free. I want basic human rights to be respected, so that the Cuban people can develop themselves and their talents fully.”
Men and women of Biscet’s makeup always resist exile, no matter how terrible are the conditions at home. Remember that Solzhenitsyn did not leave the Soviet Union voluntarily; he was expelled, a fate he considered a tragedy.
Somewhat gingerly, I ask what it was like inside prison. For years, we heard reports of the torture that Biscet was enduring. He answers me very, very briefly (and I don’t press him): “My experience was very traumatic. I was forced to live among criminals,” meaning common criminals, thugs, not prisoners of conscience, like Biscet himself. And he was indeed tortured — “primarily between 2002 and 2006.” He immediately adds, “I also gained a lot of wisdom, because I studied a great deal and drew closer to the Biblical God.” Biscet is a devoted Christian. The authorities allowed him a Bible, although he could not share it with anyone, or pray with anyone. If this happened, the other prisoner would be punished and transferred to another cell.
Biscet is a steadfast advocate of nonviolence: a nonviolent struggle for political change. We have always heard that his models are Thoreau, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama. Is this so? Yes, says Biscet, but there are others, coming from the Bible. He cites Moses — “who led the first nonviolent revolution.” He then mentions the three Hebrew boys, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. “When a king tried to force them to bow down before an idol, they refused. They knew that God would help them — and even if He did not, they would never bow down to an idol.” While in prison, Biscet “kept them close, because they are examples of freedom of expression and freedom of religion.” And they were, of course, delivered.
For the Presidential Medal of Freedom, he will not take any personal credit. “I felt honored, but I wasn’t the only person being recognized with the medal. The American people saw in me the suffering of the entire Cuban nation.” And the medal “helped change the way the world thought about Cuba.” One day, Biscet would like to meet Bush and “thank him for everything he has done for Cuba’s freedom.”
Why was abortion so important to him, early in his dissidence, and why is it important now? “The fundamental duty of a physician is to defend life.” Biscet also links abortion to the question of human rights more broadly. What about the Cuban health-care system, as a general proposition? One of the myths of the revolution is that it has provided health for all. This is not a myth that works on Biscet, who, as a Cuban doctor, knows too much.
What about another myth, then — the myth that Communist rule has been a boon to blacks? Biscet himself is black, as are many other leaders of the opposition. His contempt for this myth is unconcealed. “Completely false,” he answers. “We know that the Cuban dictatorship is anti-American, anti-Semitic, and anti-black.” And if you would like to know what the dictatorship thinks of black Cubans, “you need only go to Cuban prisons.”
It is natural to ask Biscet what he thinks of a contentious issue in the United States: the longstanding sanctions on the Cuban regime, known collectively as “the embargo.” He says, “The embargo has helped the Cuban people both politically and morally.” He wishes that all “free and civilized countries would boycott Cuba, the way they did racist South Africa.” The world made South Africa a pariah state. The American embargo should be lifted, says Biscet, “when the embargo against the Cuban people’s human rights,” imposed by the dictatorship, “is lifted.”
As he sees it, “civilized countries” have given the dictatorship “life” and “oxygen” for the past 20 years — i.e., since the collapse of the Soviet Union. And when he says “civilized countries,” does he mean Western Europe, which has sent so much cash Havana’s way? “I mean civilized countries in Europe, Latin America, and North America” (which is to say, Canada and Mexico).
Recently, Jimmy Carter was in Cuba, seeing the Castro brothers and others, including some democracy activists, Biscet among them. During his stay, Carter referred to Fidel Castro as an “old friend.” This is appalling to Biscet, as to other democrats. “One can have different ideas, and they should be respected. But to call a tyrant a friend is truly horrible.” Many in the world have tried to make a hero out of Castro. And “we should not encourage the creation of false heroes.”
Then we have the question of Biscet’s future: What will he do? He says that his immediate task is to “recover psychologically and physically” from his twelve years in darkness and hell. “I hope to be in the best possible condition,” to do the work he finds it unavoidable to do. Does he expect to be rearrested? “Anything is possible,” but he will work without fear. He believes that the island’s democrats are basically united, although “we do live under a totalitarian dictatorship that uses all of its resources to attempt to destroy us, which makes it difficult to progress as quickly as we would like.” That is probably the understatement of the hour — the hour of our time together.
The Cuban people are “enslaved,” Biscet says, “but, here in Cuba, the slaves will revolt,” as they have done elsewhere. He mentions China, Iran, and Libya. And he describes a great challenge of the opposition: to shape a transition to democracy without a Tiananmen Square. Without a massacre by the rulers, who will not give up power sweetly.
What does he want from America? He wants people to recognize just how bad the Cuban dictatorship is. And he wants solidarity. “The American people can help the Cuban people by drawing close to us in our suffering. Those of you who live in freedom have the ability to do this.” Above all, he says, do not provide the regime with the “oxygen” it needs to survive. He sees the Obama administration making concessions to the regime. And it is incomprehensible to him why “civilized and democratic countries” should lend a hand to such people — should give oxygen to the persecutors of so many, persecutors who are ripe for a great push.
After we hung up with Biscet, I talked for a while with Aramis Perez, who had translated. How did he think Biscet had sounded? “Serene and collected. He spoke out of such conviction that he did not need to emphasize his words” — they all had authority. Every now and then, you feel that you have encountered a great man. Someone who makes up for some measure of human iniquity and indifference. Perez and I felt this about Biscet. So will many others, around the world, if they get to know him.