Cuban dissident Oscar Elias Biscet looks at his wife, Elsa Morejon, a few minutes after he was released from jail in March 2011. (ADALBERTO ROQUE/Agence France-Presse via Getty Images)

When awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by George W. Bush in 2007, Óscar Elías Biscet had a scheduling conflict, being in a Cuban prison. At the White House ceremony, Bush called him a “dangerous man . . . in the same way that Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi were dangerous.” It was not until three years later in a dark cell that another prisoner told him what the citation read that day had said.

Recently, unexpectedly, Biscet was allowed by the Cuban regime to travel to the George W. Bush Institute in Dallas and finally receive the award from Bush’s hands. Biscet explained this as part of the regime’s effort to create “the impression of change.” That impression was dimmed a bit by the humiliating searches he was subjected to at the airport upon his departure. Knowing that the police would rummage through his suitcase, Biscet left a surprise: a Cuban flag covering his belongings.

That is the kind of in-your-face defiance displayed by many dissidents. Biscet is offended to the core that the country he loves is occupied by squalid autocrats who have run it into the ground. Political heroism is often expressed by the simple inability to stomach the next indignity. For this attitude, Biscet has spent 12 of his 54 years in Cuban jails.

His first offense was exposing deception at the heart of Cuban health care, the regime’s main source of revolutionary pride. In the early 1990s, Biscet (an internist and medical teacher) began documenting “the mix between politics and medicine” that kept child mortality rates in Cuba so low. The government pressured hospitals and doctors to pressure women with problem pregnancies to abort, in order to post better statistics. “If they know a baby may have congenital malformations,” Biscet told me, “they are killed before birth, unless parents show very strong objections.” He explained: “It is all about appearances.”

The largest question since President Obama’s opening to the Cuban government: Are we seeing changes that are more than appearances? There is little doubt that the regime is increasingly isolated, with its ally Venezuela in socialism-induced chaos and a more hostile government coming in Brazil. The Castro government seems interested in freeing up some economic space for small and medium-size businesses (though not for professionals such as doctors and lawyers). But jobs in tourism are awarded to regime favorites and cronies, including former members of the military. According to a recent report by Oxford Analytica, the infusion of cash into limited regions and economic sectors is encouraging greater inequality and social tension. The government has responded by lowering the price of food and children’s clothing.

There is no indication that the regime is opening social or political space. To the contrary, the Communist Party is overcompensating in its revolutionary zeal, including an old-fashioned diatribe by Fidel Castro against Obama and American imperialism.

Americans naturally view these events through the lens of their own interests and weigh the costs and benefits. Obama’s visit to Cuba in March was viewed by many (and by him) as a diplomatic breakthrough. Dissidents see things differently. “For us,” said Biscet’s wife, Elsa Morejon, “the faces of the Castros on posters are like the faces of Hitler and Stalin. To see the president of a democratic government embrace these people was . . . discouraging.”

People born into free societies have a difficult time imagining totalitarianism. In Cuba, the party ultimately controls every job. Biscet once took work at a steel factory. When his political history was discovered, he was fired. At the beginning of the regime, there were mass confiscations and killings. Then large-scale incarceration and forced exile for many Cuban patriots. Now, Morejon said, there are also “policemen in the mind.” Everyone feels watched. “That fear is what now controls the population,” Biscet said. “And it is a justified fear.”

Obama often talks about dictators and terrorists being on “the wrong side of history.” This can be a source of confidence, or a form of abdication. When progress is seen as the result of a ticking clock or impersonal forces, it acts as a release from responsibility. History is generally moved in the right direction by individuals willing to sacrifice their lives and liberty for the liberty of others. Standing up for “dangerous” men and women is not a distraction from diplomacy. It is one of the great comparative advantages of U.S. foreign policy. We benefit from the advance of the democratic values that gave our nation birth — a birth attended by men very much like Óscar Elías Biscet.

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