By Nat Hentoff
American advocates of more “constructive” relationships with Communist Cuba have been heartened by Raul Castro’s permitting Cubans to actually buy — for the first time, if they can afford them — cell phones, DVD players and computers. Another indication that Raul is more flexible than his hardline, ailing brother are “The Sopranos” reruns on Cuban television. You know what happened to anyone who crossed Tony.
George W. Bush was dead right to emphasize that this cosmetic policy is “a worthless piece of paper” with regard to changing Big Brother Fidel’s fundamental legacy until, our president added, the regime “stops its abuse of political dissidents and releases all political prisoners.”
Bush mordantly noted very soon after Raul succeeded his brother that Cuba signed, in March, the international Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which guarantees “civil and political freedom.” Foreign Minister Felipe Perez Roque solemnly assured the world (out of the hearing of Cuba’s at least 230 political prisoners in Raul’s gulags):
“This signing formalizes and reaffirms the rights protected by each agreement which my country has systematically been upholding since the triumph of the revolution.” The Castros use invisible ink.
Since the Cuban government controls the print press, television and that nation’s access to the Internet, I doubt that many Cubans know that one of Raul’s “prisoners of conscience” — as they are accurately described by Amnesty International — who will not have access to cell phones or DVD, had received in November America’s Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet is serving a 25-year sentence in a series of maximum-security prisons for the serial crimes of working for human rights. In 2003, he was put into a punishment cell because he and six other political prisoners had been peacefully protesting the crushingly cruel treatment the guards were inflicting on other prisoners of conscience.
Biscet, who is black, is a disciple of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Often in solitary confinement for his refusal to abandon his principles, he is being denied medical treatment — in Raul Castro’s Cuba — for his hypertension, gum disease and osteoarthritis. His stepson, Yan Valdes Morejon, before accepting his father’s Presidential Medal of Freedom, wrote in the Boston Globe of Biscet’s unremitting suffering, having now lost some 40 pounds and most of his teeth.
He has not lost his spirit. In one of the statements he has smuggled out of prison, Biscet writes: “In spite of the difficult situation, I am not frightened nor will I go back a step in regard to my ideas. I am here by my own uncompromising free will ... and will serve this unjust sentence until God in the highest puts an end to it.”
International human rights organizations and the United Nations had insistently asked Fidel Castro to release Biscet. As noted by the Washington Bureau of McClatchy Newspapers when Biscet was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, humanist Fidel Castro had previously called him “a little crazy man.”
Elsa Morejon, Biscet’s second wife — in the same McClatchy news report — said that her husband knew somehow that he’d won the Medal of Freedom and told her “he would dedicate the medal to the victims of communism in the world, and to Cubans who want a free Cuba.”
In 1997, before being supposedly silenced, as Fidel thought, in the gulag. Biscet founded the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights (named for his neighborhood in Havana). And he has now told his stepson, Morejon, to have Dr. Angel Garrido, head of the Miami chapter of the Lawton Foundation, to keep the medal — “until Cuba is free.”
Another doctor in one of Raul Castro’s prisons is Jorge Luis Garcia Paneque. He was put away for 18 years in 2003, Amnesty International verified on March 17, “for visiting prisoners and their families as part of his work with the Cuban Human Rights Commission, and maintaining ties to the international humanitarian organization, Doctors Without Borders.”
Also in one of Raul’s cells is Ivan Hernandez Carrillo, sentenced in 2003 to 25 years for such subversive activities as having in his home an independent library where Cubans could get books banned in Cuba’s state library system. (There are other independent librarians who still remain caged). I have a copy, from the University of Texas School of Information, of the Cuban court order requiring the burning of the contents of Carrillo’s library.
Among the titles: a biography, “Martin Luther King: Contra todas las exclusiones” by Vincent Roussel.
Biscet knows the book well. It was destroyed by the Castro dictatorship as “based on ideas that could be used to promote social disorder and civil disobedience.” And Cuban customs officials seized a copy of the King biography “against the general interest of our nation.”
Does anyone suppose that Raul Castro will liberate this biography of Dr. Martin Luther King, or Biscet himself? Or will the America Library Association finally put on its Internet list of banned books this volume once on the shelves of an independent librarian in Cuba? They’ve often been asked to do that.
Nat Hentoff is a nationally renowned authority on the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights.