At a White House ceremony today President Bush will honor eight
distinguished men and women with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the
nation's highest civil award. Among the recipients will be the longtime civil
rights activist Benjamin Hooks; Harper Lee, author of the much-loved novel, "To
Kill a Mockingbird"; Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the first woman elected
president of an African nation; and C-SPAN's founder and president, Brian Lamb.
One of the honorees, however, will not be there. Instead of joining the
president amid the pomp and finery of the White House, Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet
will spend the day locked in a fetid cell in the Combinado del Este prison in
Havana, where he is serving a 25-year prison sentence for speaking out against
Fidel Castro's dictatorship.
Peter Kirsanow, a member of the US Commission on Civil Rights, has written that
the conditions of Biscet's incarceration are like something out of Victor Hugo:
"windowless and suffocating, with wretched sanitary conditions. The stench
seeping from the pit in the ground that serves as a toilet is intensified by
being compressed into an unventilated cell only as wide as a broom closet. . .
. Biscet reportedly suffers from osteoarthritis, ulcers, and hypertension. His
teeth, those that haven't fallen out, are rotted and infected."
A replica of the solitary cell similar to the one Oscar Elias Biscet is kept in.
A pro-life Christian physician, Biscet first ran afoul of the Castro regime in
the 1990s, when he investigated Cuban abortion techniques Cuba has by far
the highest abortion rates in the Western Hemisphere and revealed that
numerous infants had been killed after being delivered alive. In 1997, he began
the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, which seeks "to establish in Cuba a
state based on the rule of law" and "sustained upon the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights." Between June 1998 and November 1999 he was arrested 26 times;
in 1999, he was sentenced to three years in prison for "disrespecting patriotic
symbols." To protest the regime's repression, he had hung a Cuban flag upside
For decades, various American journalists and celebrities have rhapsodized
about Castro's supposed island paradise, resolutely ignoring the mountains of
evidence that it is in reality a tropical dungeon. Intent on seeing Castro as a
revolutionary hero and Cuba as Shangri-la, they avert their gaze from the
island's genuine heroes the prisoners of conscience like Biscet, who pay a
fearful price for their insistence on telling the truth.
The US detention center in Guantanamo Bay is sometimes spoken of as if it were
a Caribbean concentration camp, but the only facilities that deserve such a
label are hellholes like Combinado del Este, in which Biscet and so many other
Cuban dissidents have been brutally abused or worse. Over the years, life in
Castro's gulag has been well-chronicled. The classic narrative is Armando
Valladares's Against All Hope, a stark and searing memoir, first published in
1985, of the author's 22 years in Cuba's horrific prisons.
The newest account of life as a Cuban political prisoner is Fighting Castro: A
Love Story, Kay Abella's affecting and inspiring saga of one Cuban couple's
love for each other and for their homeland, and the cruelties, large and petty,
inflicted on those who challenge the regime.
For Lino Fernandez, a young physician who pays for his democratic resistance
with 17 years behind bars, those cruelties are sadistic and often bloody.
Abella describes, for example, what it was like to experience a requisa a
search by armed prison guards in the notorious round fortress on Isla de
"The roar of the invading horde . . . viciously beating men unarmed and weak
from malnutrition and confinement. A screaming mass of soldiers swarming over
the circular, stabbing with bayonets, crushing limbs with truncheons and
rubber-wrapped chains. The panic of no place to hide, knowing you'll be beaten
harder for trying to protect yourself, stomped on for clinging to a pillar or
rail, thrown down the stairs for daring to hesitate. . . . The indignity of men
whining, begging, whimpering before a skull is cracked, a shoulder yanked from
its socket, genitals smashed with the gun butt."
For the families of political prisoners, the cruelties come in other forms,
such as the humiliating strip-searches on the rare occasions when a prison
visit is permitted, or the pressure put on children to demonstrate loyalty to
the Communist Party that has imprisoned their father. And there is economic
privation: Oscar Biscet's wife, Elsa Morejon, is a trained nurse, but she has
been barred from holding a professional job in Cuba since 1998.
The conscience and courage of these dissidents are nothing short of
extraordinary. "During these years here in prison," Biscet wrote to Elsa in a
letter smuggled out of prison earlier this year, "I have seen shameful things
that I am unable to describe to you in words because of their perversity and
their attack on . . . civilized society. Despite this difficult situation I am
not intimidated nor do I take any step backwards in my mind. . . . I will carry
out this unjust sentence until the most high G-d puts an end to it."