By Jordan Allott & Daniel Allott on 12.30.08 @ 6:07AM
"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
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