Oscar Biscet's Cuba

Thursday, June 23, 2016
By Daniel Allott in The Washington Examiner:

Oscar Biscet's Cuba

"No," Oscar Biscet said, smiling, when I asked him in broken Spanish whether he was getting tired after a series of meetings on Capitol Hill. "After spending more than 11 years in prison, including nearly six months in solitary confinement, I like to be around people."

That's especially the case, he added, when those people are discussing democracy, religious freedom and human rights. Those are concepts Biscet has devoted his life to advancing in a country where having such discussions can land you in prison.

Dr. Biscet is one of Cuba's most important human rights activists and political dissidents. Biscet was in the middle of an eight-day visit to Washington, D.C.

During his trip, Biscet met with members of Congress (including Sens. Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio) and officials at the White House and State Department, gave several think tank speeches and spoke with the editorial boards of two publications (including this one).

He had just finished meeting with Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Chris Smith and other sympathetic congressmen, and was on his way to deliver a talk at the Heritage Foundation.

When I spoke with Biscet later, he said that the thing he appreciated most about being in Washington was the warm welcome he had received from government officials.

In Cuba, where he had spent all of his 55 years until last month, Biscet has lived the last quarter century either incarcerated or under close surveillance by the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution, neighborhood gangs that report to the government on any "counter-revolutionary" activity.

Biscet, a physician, has had three stints in prison for such "counter-revolutionary" acts as exposing and protesting against widespread infanticide in Cuba's health system, displaying a Cuban flag upside down and meeting with a small group of political activists to discuss a petition drive demanding the recognition of human rights.

For that last offense, Biscet was given a 25-year prison sentence, of which he served more than eight years before being released in 2011. Over the last two decades, Biscet has become a leading advocate of a nonviolent resistance to the Castro regime and of a peaceful transition to democracy on the island.

Biscet has received numerous accolades for his human rights work, including, in 2007, the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was on his way to Texas to pick up the award from President George W. Bush as this column went to press.

The Castros granted Biscet permission to leave the island earlier this year. Biscet suspects they did so to ingratiate themselves to the U.S. The regime is known to encourage dissenters to leave the country, hoping that they will enjoy the freedom and opportunities life outside Cuba affords so much that they'll never go back.

But Biscet will go back. While in prison, he was repeatedly offered freedom in return for exile, but refused. "I have a moral and ethical commitment to return. I can't leave my people enslaved," he said.

God is at the center of all of Biscet's work. And he believes religious freedom is the key to Cuba's resurgence. "Cuba's a country with a Christian soul," he said. Cuba is officially a secular state. Its constitution plays lip service to religious liberty, but in practice it's very limited. Biscet says Cubans are allowed to go to church, but not much more.

Biscet's main purpose in visiting D.C. was to raise awareness of the Emilia Project, an initiative he launched to help teach Cubans how to engage in nonviolent civil disobedience.

He was also there to inform Americans "of the perverse nature of the regime that still exists." President Obama visited Cuba in March. In his weekly address before his arrival, Obama said that his trip would "advance American interests and values" and "help the Cuban people improve their lives."

The visit was timed to take place before Cuba's Communist Party Congress. The White House apparently hoped to influence the congress and perhaps persuade it to implement some meaningful reforms.

But no reforms were enacted, and during an April 19 address to the congress, his first in nearly two decades, Fidel Castro said that though he will soon die, "the ideas of the Cuban communists will remain as proof on this planet that if they are worked at with fervor and dignity, they can produce the material and cultural goods that human beings need, and we need to fight without a truce to obtain them."

Since Obama's recent overtures to Cuba, which included the opening of embassies in both countries, loosening of travel restrictions to Cuba and Obama's call for the trade embargo to be lifted, there has been an increase in repression.

The Cuban Commission for Human Rights reports that there were 6,075 political arrests during the first five months of this year, the highest number in decades. That number includes Biscet, who was briefly detained on Mothers' Day.

Biscet is a charismatic figure and an engaging and animated speaker. His influences include King, Hayek, Sharansky, Gandhi and Jesus Christ.

It's that last influence that matters most. In a meeting with Rep. Chris Smith, they discussed the possibility of Biscet testifying before Congress about the purported economic reforms on the island ("The people are far removed from the benefits," Biscet says).

Smith expressed his concern that Biscet would be in danger if he returned to Cuba after testifying against the regime. But Biscet said he was not worried: "God will take care of it."