I'm not totally sure why all of a sudden the President has begun to champion the cause of Cuban dissidents publically (except for the fact that he wouldn't have beaten Al Gore in 2000 without the Cuban vote in southern Florida and he currently needs to "woo" Cuban voters for support of the Republican candidate in 2008), but in the last month he has held a private audience with Yamilé Llanes Labrada, wife of political prisoner and prisoner of conscience, José Luis García Paneque and invited families of political prisoners to the White House for the reiteration of his policy toward Cuba. Then, on Monday (10/29) came the official announcement that President Bush has chosen to award one of the six Presidential Medals of Freedom to Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet González, an internal medicine specialist and highly respected symbol of opposition to the Castro regime, in a ceremony at the White House this coming Monday, November 5th.
It is because of Dr. Biscet's case that I became so interested in human rights work on behalf of political prisoners in Cuba. It is through a pursuit of information on Dr. Biscet that I met Laida Carro, a woman who works tirelessly on behalf of political prisoners and prisoners of conscience in Cuba. And, it is with Laida that I began to work in human rights affairs and still stay busy translating articles, organizing conferences, and talking to people around the world about the tragic situation Cuban political prisoners and prisoners of conscience suffer in Cuba. My heart rejoices in the fact that Laida will be present at the White House for the award ceremony. She, more than anyone, brought his situation into the world spotlight. She is devoted to his cause. In fact, Laida is solely responsible for arranging for Dr. Biscet's daughter, who currently lives in Virginia, to receive the award on his behalf.
My interest in Oscar Elías Biscet González began about 10 years ago when one of my students came across information about him while doing research on a project for my fifth quarter Spanish class. The more I read about this man, who is a student of Gandi, Martin Luther King, and other advocates of non-violent civil disobedience, the more I wanted to know about what had landed him in jail in Cuba. I read incessantly about his struggle as a voice for human rights for the Cuban people, and I learned that he had had the courage to publish a report on Rivanol, a drug used to produce spontaneous abortions in women so that fetal tissue could be used in research. Laida happened to be the person who translated the report and got it to the United Nations. And, as one would anticipate, shortly thereafter, Biscet was barred from practicing medicine and began receiving intense harassment from the Cuban authorities. Ultimately, he was arrested for attending a meeting of human rights activists and supposedly for flying the Cuban flag upside down.
At present, Dr. Biscet still remains in prison outisde of Havana. Because he has become an international symbol of opposition to the Castro regime, prison authorities have moved him from solitary confinement, and he is receiving a little better treatment than before. Until recently, he was housed in a very small cell with no light, no running water, and a hole in the floor to be used for bathroom purposes. There were many occasions when the prison sewer backed up through that hole, and he his cell floor was covered with human waste. He was given putrid food through a slot in the bottom of his cell door, and he lived with rats invading his cell at any given hour. At one point, he was not allowed any reading or writing material and never got to leave his cell to go outside in the sun.
A healthy man when he went into prison, Biscet now suffers from a myriad of problems. He's lost almost all his teeth to a nasty gum disease, and he has everything from high blood pressure to pretty severe intestinal problems. Despite physical and psychological torture, he remains firm about not wearing the uniform of the common prisoner as dictated by Cuban penal code, and he refuses to participate in prison "education." In short, he's a real pain in the rear end for the Cuban government.
I know Dr. Biscet would consider this award as one that represents the Cuban people and their struggle rather than his own. He's a humble man of great faith and courage, a person I foresee as a key figure in the future of his country.
So again, I have to say thanks to George W. Bush. Regardless of any political motive he attaches to this award, for the Cuban people and especially for the political prisoners and prisoners of conscience who are heinously mistreated in Cuban prisons, the award is a great source of strength and hope.
Gracias, Señor Presidente.