Monday, November 05, 2007


(Note: This article appeared in the November 5, 2007 edition of The Wall Street Journal on page A18)


Cuban physician Oscar Elías Biscet and seven others will be awarded the presidential medal of freedom by George W. Bush in a White House ceremony today. But Dr. Biscet will not be there to accept his honor in person. Today, like most days for the better part of the past eight years, he is locked away in a dungeon on Fidel Castro's island paradise.

Tales of totalitarian gulags may strike some readers as ancient history, something that happened during Europe's 20th-century experiments in fascism, communism and Nazism. Yet in Cuba, the gulag and its suffering have not ended. Dr. Biscet's medal serves to remind us of this fact. By raising the profile of his struggle for a free Cuba, the award also highlights what Castro's regime fears most. It is not the guns and tanks of some imperial invader, but rather the faith, courage and nonconformity of the country's own people.

Dr. Biscet, 46, is a renowned pacifist and devout Christian. He has said that he is inspired by the examples of Martin Luther King, Gandhi and the Dalai Lama. We know this and much more about his life thanks to the Coalition of Cuban-American Women, which says it documents all the facts it publishes about political prisoners through live testimonies from Cuba.

While practicing medicine in Cuban hospitals for more than a decade, Dr. Biscet became increasingly concerned about the government's abortion practices. In 1998, at a Havana hospital, he took the risk of engaging in a clandestine study on the administration of a drug called rivanol to abort advanced pregnancies. The drug was being widely used, particularly on girls as young as 12, who, having been forced to leave their parents and work in rural areas as part of their schooling, found themselves "in trouble."

The study concluded that rivanol resulted in viable fetuses being born alive. What often happened next horrified Dr. Biscet, who later wrote that, "the umbilical cord was cut and they were allowed to bleed to death or they were wrapped in paper and asphyxiated."

As a result of his vocal opposition to these abortion practices he lost his job, his family lost their home and Castro's goons were sent to beat him up. But the bullying didn't work. By now he was actively engaged in resistance against the regime and, as he has written, his conscience would not allow him to back down. Those familiar with Dr. Biscet's work say that he was instrumental in building -- at the grassroots level -- on the impact of Pope John Paul II's visit to Cuba in January 1998. The regime took notice. Dr. Biscet became one of the few dissidents that Castro has ever attacked by name in a speech to the nation. As a proponent of Cuban democracy told me, "It proves that Biscet really got under Castro's skin."

From July 1998 until November 1999, Dr. Biscet was jailed 26 times. During those detentions, he was held for days in windowless cells or thrown in with populations of violent criminals and the mentally ill. In February 2000, he was tried and sentenced to three years in prison for holding a press conference to announce a peaceful march during the 1999 Ibero-American Summit in Havana. The backdrop at the press conference was two Cuban flags hung upside down to protest the state's violations of human rights. He was convicted for "dishonoring national symbols, public disorder and inciting delinquent behavior" and sent to a maximum security prison 450 miles east of Havana, making family visits difficult.

Cuba's political prison system is structured not only to punish dissent, but also to force the "rehabilitation" of the prisoner. Captives who give in, admit the error of their political ways and beg forgiveness sometimes can get out of jail. But Dr. Biscet is no such prisoner. While serving his three-year sentence, he increased his resistance, carrying out fasts and pushing for the release of political prisoners. The regime responded by putting him again in a squalid, solitary confinement cell or among dangerous inmates. He was denied visitors and medical treatment, and his Bible was confiscated.

In late October 2002, Dr. Biscet was released from prison only to be arrested 36 days later as he was preparing to meet with fellow Cuban human-rights advocates. In April 2003, he was convicted, as were 75 others who had been rounded up in the now-infamous March 2003 crackdown on dissent. He received a 25-year sentence for "serving as a mercenary to a foreign state." The Coalition of Cuban-American Women reports that, from November 2003-January 2004, he was held in "an underground dungeon with a common criminal and lost 40 pounds."
His time in solitary has been no less inhumane. Dr. Biscet has described his 3-foot-by-6-foot cell as having no windows or running water. It has a hole in the floor for a toilet and is infested with vermin. One of his confinement periods there lasted 42 days. Dr. Biscet says that "the Cuban government has tortured me during eight years, trying to drive me insane." Perhaps most painfully for the prisoner, his wife has been fired from her job as a nurse and is harassed by the state.

Dr. Biscet says that the regime has offered to let him go if he agrees to leave Cuba. He will not. In an April letter to his wife Elsa, he explained why: "My suffering is much, much less since I began to seek after my dream of being free, but not only for me personally. If I thought only of myself, you know that I would have been free a long time ago, and I would have been rid of these unsettling anxieties. But I want to see my friend's son, my adversary's son, or any citizen laughing happily from the satisfaction in their lives and enjoying a wealth of freedom because it is the only way human talent reaches its maximum splendor. . . ."

Reading those words, it is difficult to think of anyone more deserving of a medal honoring those who serve the cause of freedom.

No comments: