An Afro-Cuban dissident who spent time in Fidel Castro’s gulags, Oscar Biscet is one of many people that represent the real Cuba, the people who will be hidden from sight as President Obama visits this week. While the president basks in the Cuban sun and in photo-ops with its heavy-handed dictator, the fate and freedom of political resisters like Biscet remains grim. Biscet is free now in technical terms, but in reality, he remains among a cohort of dissenters who still live in an invisible prison: a society still very much under the thumb of a totalitarian regime. And this week, Obama will provide that very regime with dangerously unwarranted legitimacy in the form of a diplomatic visit.
Biscet and I were convicted of the same crime: fidelity to our consciences. Biscet, a doctor, blew the whistle on corruption and abuse in Cuba’s health-care system. The government called it “disrespect.” My crime was in refusing to put a simple sign on my desk that said, “I’m with Fidel.” He and I and countless others who refused to go along with the Castro regime’s flagrant human rights violations were sentenced to decades in jail, where the government showed no restraint in trying to break us into submission.
And while both of us are technically free men now, Biscet and others like him living in Cuba go about their lives bearing the invisible shackles of a government that tolerates not a word of protest.
The entire island of Cuba lives garroted by these unseen chains. And despite glossy magazine ads inviting travelers to come for the mojitos and pristine beaches, and cheerful state visits from the likes of John Kerry and Obama, nothing has changed. Rather, as countless organizations have attested, human rights abuses have only escalated, and Cuba is in violation of basic stipulations in its diplomatic agreement with the United States by refusing to allow workers from the Red Cross and United Nations to come and lift the palm-studded hood and take a look.
When the president announced his intention to reopen diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, he said, “I believe that we can do more to support the Cuban people and promote our values through engagement.” What followed was to be expected from a dictatorial government that has reigned through violent oppression with nothing but ruler slaps from world governments. Cuba also has cover from international institutions like the U.N., where it sits on the Human Rights Council ranting yearly about “human rights abuses” in other countries. And now, to secure its rewards like state visits and relaxed sanctions from the United States, it will escalate political crackdowns. The government, which no doubt doesn’t want to scare away American tourists with visions of bloodied protesters being dragged from the streets, is sending a message to dissidents louder than ever: Shut up or be locked up. As a Washington Post editorial said, there were more than 8,000 political arrests in 2015, up by thousands from years prior. The crackdown on dissidents is so bad that it prompted Kerry to cancel a trip he had scheduled just weeks before Obama’s visit.
The president’s decision to go anyway sends a message of favoritism for the strong at the expense of the weak. Dictators dream about friendly visits from heads of state; such a favor from the president of the United States is the ultimate fantasy. It provides an endless trove of propaganda material that helps lend legitimacy to the Castro regime, whose agenda of late consists of courting big corporations desperately needed to boost a failed experiment in socialism on the one hand, and bulldozing house churches on the other.
Antagonizing believers is a particular specialty of the Castro regime. To them, faith is especially dangerous, because it kindles the conscience and keeps it burning when enemies advance. “¡Viva Cristo Rey!” were the last words of so many of my friends who were dragged to the shooting wall. Eventually, the government realized this was a battle cry for freedom, one that came from the deepest part of the men they were killing, and one that was only inspiring more men to die faithful to their consciences and to something greater than Fidel Castro. Their executioners realized that an expression of faith was more powerful than the explosion of a gun. So eventually, they gagged them.
The same men who did this are still in power today. In agreeing to meet with Raul Castro, Obama rewards a regime that rules with brutal force and systemically violates human rights. He shrugs his shoulders at the little man. He shows a callous disregard for the human conscience, the single greatest threat to any ruler.
In a March 10 letter responding to an angry message from the Damas de Blanco, an opposition movement of the mothers, wives and other female relatives of jailed dissidents known for their all-white attire, Obama thanked them for being “an inspiration to human rights movements around the world.”
I wonder how many more women will be made into Damas by his trip to Cuba.