“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” — Frederick Douglass
December marks the 60th anniversary of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Crafted in the aftermath of World War II, the document (the world’s most translated) represented the first global expression of rights to which all human beings are inherently entitled.
The Declaration’s anniversary comes at a propitious time. January 1, 2009 marks the 50th anniversary of what Cubans call “La Revolución,” which culminated in the overthrow of the regime of Fulgencio Batista by Marxist guerrillas led by Fidel Castro. The near concurrence of these historic anniversaries provides an opportunity to consider how far the Cuban government has to go in upholding the most basic rights of its citizens.
When discussing the island nation located just 90 miles from America’s border, the Western news media almost invariably focus on the 200 to 300 prisoners at Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. Often overlooked, however, are the 200 to 300 Cuban prisoners scattered across the island, imprisoned not as terrorist suspects but as nonviolent political prisoners whose only “crime” is that of promoting human rights in a nation in which two generations have grown up without them. Arrested and given lengthy, often decades-long sentences for offenses like “dangerousness” and “pre-criminal activity,” they are Cuba’s prisoners of conscience.
Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet is a leading figure in Cuba’s democracy movement. A physician and founder and president of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, Biscet has been confined to a prison cell for all but 36 days since 1999. He first drew the ire of the communist regime by exposing its use of infanticide and forced abortion. (Cuba has one of the world’s highest abortion rates.) In 1999, after hanging a Cuban flag upside down in protest, Biscet was given a three-year sentence for the crime of “disrespecting patriotic symbols.”
In 2003, following a month of freedom, Biscet was re-arrested just days before the government’s “Black Spring” crackdown on dissent, during which some 90 pro-democracy Cuban journalists and activists were imprisoned. (Cuba has imprisoned more journalists than any other country except China, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Biscet is now serving a 25-year sentence for “counter-revolutionary activities” for his peaceful promotion of democracy in Cuba.
Held captive in a tiny, windowless cell at the Combinado del Este prison outside Havana, Biscet is denied most family visits as well as essential medicine and food. He suffers from a variety of chronic ailments and reportedly is losing his eyesight. But Biscet, an epitome of fortitude, endures in prison, praying for freedom and justice while writing letters of encouragement to his supporters and continuing to defy his captors. All of which makes Biscet almost as much of a menace to his captors in prison as he would be on the outside. In 2007, President Bush presented Biscet, in absentia, with the presidential Medal of Freedom, our nation’s highest civil award.
To better understand how Biscet and the hundreds of others unjustly imprisoned in Cuba persist, we spoke with Ernesto Diaz, a former prisoner in Castro’s gulag now living in the United States. Diaz was imprisoned for more than 22 years for standing up for liberty in Cuba. While enduring torture, and what Diaz calls “inhuman and degrading experiences,” he was “able to discover the enormous potential of the human spirit to resist and survive with valor and dignity when fighting for a noble cause.” Diaz believes he had, and will always have, “a moral obligation not to accept the Cuban dictatorship.”
Diaz and other Cuban dissidents don’t hold out much hope for UN intervention. Last February, just days after Raul Castro was officially sworn in as the new president, Cuba became a signatory to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. But then again, Cuba is currently serving its seventh consecutive three-year term on the UN Human Rights commission. If change is to come to Cuba, it will have to come mainly from within and with some help from the United States.
President-elect Barack Obama has pledged not to lift the U.S. trade embargo with Cuba until it releases all its political prisoners. Obama has also vowed to launch a review of the files of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay in an effort to close down the American military prison. We hope Mr. Obama abides by the former promise with the same fidelity many expect him to abide by the latter. For it is only when Cuba’s prisoners of conscience are free that Cubans will be able to find anything more than bitter irony in their government’s thus far empty embrace of the Declaration of Human Rights.
Until then, on the island that Columbus, upon his arrival in 1492, called, “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen,” Cubans will take solace in the enduring example of their hidden heroes. And in the haunting words of Dr. Biscet: “Here, in this dark jail where they force me to live, I will be resisting until the freedom of my people is obtained.”