On March 11, 2011 Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet was released from a maximum-security prison outside Havana. The release of Dr. Biscet, who had spent all but 36 days of the past 11 years in a Cuban prison cell, was negotiated with the help of the Catholic Church and the government of Spain. Dr. Biscet has been called the number-one enemy of the Castro brothers for his non-violent opposition to the Cuban government’s human rights violations and its systematic use of forced abortion. In 2007, Dr. Biscet received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the United States, and he is a finalist for the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize. Because the Cuban government allows its citizens only very limited use of the Internet and other technologies, this interview with CWR was conducted over several weeks and has been translated from Spanish into English.
[Editor’s Note: This interview originally appeared in the December 2011 issue of Catholic World Report.]
Six months have now passed since you were released from prison. Can you tell us what this time has been like for you and your family, both spiritually and in terms of everyday life?
Oscar Biscet: You mention two important terms in this question—one is freedom and the other one is the family. Both of them are the product of God’s boundless love for human beings. In the Book of Genesis it says: “Then God said, ‘Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness’… male and female he created them.” This poetic expression encompasses a profound philosophy and a scientific approach to understanding the world, so necessary nowadays for the behavior of the human race. God is the father of the human family and a paradigm of absolute freedom in the universe. For that reason I positively value having been released in order to be able to live daily life, good [and] bad, with my wife and with the rest of my family—and above all to be able to [work for] fundamental rights for my family and for my people.
Of the 75 opposition leaders, journalists, and librarians arrested during Cuba’s 2003 Black Spring, you were one of the last prisoners of conscience to be released. Can you describe the process of your release? During this process, you consistently refused release in exchange for exile. Was that a difficult decision?
Biscet: The process for my release was long, traumatic, and distressing for many.… The institutions involved were not able to carry out a balanced negotiation to benefit the political prisoners while they were waiting to be released. I had made the decision not to leave my country 14 years ago, when in 1998, I was expelled from the hospital where I was working for the mere fact that I peacefully defended the life of the unborn children. They also retaliated against my family. Friends from other nations offered me political asylum but I rejected their proposals. This was very hard because at that time my relatives were being tortured by the Castro regime.
Can you describe your emotions after finally being released in March?
Biscet: It was very pleasant. I was happy and calm because I was returning to my home. At the same time, I was worried, as I had my hopes pinned on [securing] human rights and the freedom of the Cuban people.
How are inmates, both political prisoners and general prisoners, treated inside Cuban prisons? Do you have any stories to share from your time as a prisoner of conscience?
Biscet: The penitentiary system in Cuba is a clear reflection of the socialist society. They violate all the international agreements on human rights, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners. In Cuban prisons [the government] tortures [inmates] and provides cruel and inhuman treatment to the prisoners. There are many horrible and shameful stories regarding the attitudes of the military staff within the prisons. Usually in prisons we find drug trafficking. One of the ways to obtain [drugs] is to [procure] them from the treatment of sick inmates. On one occasion a prisoner claimed [he needed drugs] for his medical treatment and they denied it. His way to protest was to inflict damage to himself. He cut a small artery of his hand and blood gushed out. The authorities were aware of this case but they did not pay any attention. Given this difficult situation I protested vigorously and only then was he taken to the hospital.
How did you spend your time in prison? How were you able to nourish your spiritual life? How did you remain strong?
Biscet: Before being imprisoned I was a man with a deep love for the God of the Bible. The Jewish-Christian philosophy was part of my daily life and this enabled me to resist with dignity the hard times in prison. I was able to know in practice the merciful love of God through the forgiveness of sins, upholding the humble in spirit over the arrogant, and searching for the best of the human being. Only my faith and hope in that loving God who wants the good for all his sons enabled me to grow in spirit and strengthened me for the ups and downs of life. That is why I was able to succeed and I thank my Lord again and again. Hope is what fills people with optimism and this is what I transmitted to all the inmates. Those who were imprisoned for having committed crimes I encouraged to change their way of life and to be good citizens, which will eventually help to change the nation for good. With reference to the prisoners of conscience, the hope that we would soon be released and that then we would be followed by our people was the conviction that kept [us] happy in that dark world. This state of happiness was reflected in my face, and this was visible and contagious. This profound feeling prevented me from abandoning my homeland and thus destroying the hopes of my people.
After having spent the better part of the last 11 years in prison, do you believe the Cuban government has made any substantial changes in the way it treats its citizens?
Biscet: Currently in Cuba we have the same dictatorship we’ve had during the last 52 years, Castro’s Stalinist dictatorship. What we’ve seen in the country’s government is the succession of one ruler to another. Recently, Fidel Castro was [succeeded] by his brother, Raul. Since then, state terrorism has also increased. They have even beaten women, and they have murdered people, like Orlando Zapata Tamayo and Juan W. Soto, who were [working] in a peaceful manner for human rights. The communist regime is the same as in 1959. It’s repressive, unproductive, and corrupt. Its governor, Raul Castro, has the same characteristics as five decades ago. He’s perverse, cruel, and a murderer.
How do you interpret Raul Castro’s recent decisions to allow limited private jobs and private land?
Biscet: These decisions are due to a profound economic crisis through which his system is going. Don’t take this as a sign of economic freedom, because this process is reversible; besides, there are other cruel dictatorships that have also had private firms, and this has not led to the respect of civil or political rights.
Churches in Cuba are restricted in many ways. Have you witnessed any new opportunities for churches to reach the people with the word of Christ? What is the state of the Cuban people’s faith?
Biscet: Cuba does not have a real religious freedom. You can’t build temples freely. You cannot broadcast the biblical message autonomously. Religious schools are forbidden. Cuban printers have never printed the Bible, and you cannot preach in parks and open spaces. Priests who [object to] their social status are expelled from their institutions due to the pressure exercised by the government. Cuban people desire significant changes in their lives, not just from the economic point of view, but also from a perspective [of] human dignity. That is to say, they desire to have civil and political rights. Until now state terrorism has held back their dreams, but this will not last for a long time. Many of us have [prayed] for the favor of the God of the Bible to accomplish this liberating venture, and we have faith that we will be able to make these dreams come true.
What would you suggest the international community—the US government, the EU—do to help bring about democratic change in Cuba? Also, what can the leadership of the Catholic Church (both in Cuba and at the Vatican) do to support Christians and those working non-violently for freedom in Cuba?
Biscet: Freedom is the most precious asset that human beings have because it…makes them independent both individually and socially. For this reason, free countries should clearly support people, groups of people, or institutions that [work] for human and fundamental rights. Solidarity with human beings who suffer a dictatorship is ethical and fair, and their support is indispensable. An action like the one carried out for racist South Africa is ideal to help the Cuban people.
I believe that if the Catholic Church honors the legacy of Pope John Paul II…and works together with the long-suffering Cuban people and puts aside the favoritism toward the government of Havana, it would greatly contribute to the freedom of its people. I would very much like [to see] the leaders of the Catholic Church, both in Cuba and the Vatican, encourage the government of [Cuba] to sign and put into practice the international agreement on civil, political, and human rights. They should also urge them to hold free and democratic elections.
What can Christians around the world do to support your cause?
Biscet: The first action of any Christian is to show their solidarity through prayers to the Lord God in favor of all those who suffer. Next, they should inform [others], through any means of communication, [about] the lack of freedom and the violation of basic human rights [in Cuba].
What are your plans for the future? Do you have any initiatives forthcoming?
Biscet: [I will continue to find] feasible ways for my people to live in freedom, peace, and prosperity. This can be attained through the civil nonviolent struggle. That is to say, massive, nonviolent political action that disintegrates the dictatorship and establishes democracy and freedom guaranteed by the democratic rule of law.