Oscar Biscet, a well-known human rights activist from Havana, spent over a decade in Cuban prisons for a host of alleged crimes: dishonoring national symbols, public disorder, inciting delinquent behavior, and, ultimately, crimes against state security.
“They put me in a very tiny cell full of tuberculosis patients,” he recalled last week. In another case of the perverse treatment he received for publicly opposing the regime, the prison guards threw him into a small cell with mental patients who had not been given their medication.
“They are more subtle than Hitler and Stalin, but they have the same mechanisms,” he said of the leaders of his home country.
While he witnessed fellow inmates being electrocuted and enduring physical abuse, Biscet was only subjected to what he calls “white torture,” which includes prolonged solitary confinement, extended periods of total silence followed by booming music, and other psychological abuse. “They constantly reminded me that they could do with me whatever they wanted at any given time.”
‘They could kill me. I know I am taking a risk. But I have to continue fighting for freedom’
On Monday, Biscet, who was released from prison five years ago but until now had not been allowed to leave the country, wrapped up his first-ever trip to Israel. In Jerusalem he met with former and current government officials, including the Mossad’s former station chief in Tehran, the Foreign Ministry diplomat in charge of Central America, and MK Avi Dichter, a former Shin Bet chief and current chair of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.
A jovial father of two and grandfather of three, Biscet, who is currently in Florida, intends to return to Cuba on Sunday — despite a tangible danger. He could be incarcerated again, or worse. “Of course I am afraid. They could kill me. I know I am taking a risk. But I have to continue fighting for freedom,” he said in Spanish, speaking through a translator.
The main purpose of his trip — for which he left his home country for the first time in his life — was to warn the world, and particularly Israel, of the regime in Havana. Despite the recent rapprochement with the United States, Cuba is still a cruel, totalitarian regime that systematically violates civil rights and brutally suppresses political opposition, he said. And while he was released from prison, no one should think that the Communist island nation has become, or is about to become, a democracy, he posited.
“The fact that I’m here is not because there are any changes or liberties in Cuba,” he told The Times of Israel in a Jerusalem cafe, referring to the fact that he was allowed to leave the country despite his criticism of the regime. “We’re here because the Cuban government is interested in presenting a new image, but not because there are any real changes in the Cuban government.”
In December 2014, the United States reestablished diplomatic relations with Havana, declaring an end to decades of enmity. “Isolation has not worked,” US President Barack Obama said at the time, announcing a “new approach.” In March, Obama became the first American leader to visit the island since 1928.
“This new American policy of a diplomatic engagement with Cuba is a mistake,” said Jose Azel, a senior research associate at the University of Miami’s Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, who accompanied Biscet to Israel. “Because it’s a policy that embraces an oppressor and ignores the oppressed. It’s a policy that chooses to side with the bad guys and not with those who fight for democracy.”
Contrary to what many people believe, Cuba has not changed for the better since Fidel Castro handed the scepter to his brother Raul a decade ago, he argued. “There is absolutely no movement toward democracy or any political change,” Azel asserted.
The US government’s argument that a diplomatic opening and some sort of economic engagement will lead to democratization at some point in the future is fallacious, Azel said. China and Vietnam opened their markets to the West decades ago, and today are certainly wealthier because of it, he said. “That speaks well of capitalism — but they have not advanced one step toward political freedom. To suggest that economic changes lead to political freedom is demonstrably false.”
It is true that economic sanctions imposed by the US over decades have failed to change the dictatorial nature of the regime, Azel allowed. But there are 190 nations in the world that always had diplomatic and economic ties with Cuba, and that also did not lead to democratization, he argued. “So if you cite to me one example of a policy failure, I will reply that there 190 example of policy failures. Both policies have failed.”
Biscet, a physician by profession, began his career as a dissident in the mid-1980s by staging a pro-life demonstration to protest what he calls the Cuban government’s system of “abusive abortions.” Since then he has become a celebrated activist. In 1997, George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, calling him a “a champion in the fight against tyranny and oppression.” A decade and a half later, in 2011, the rock band U2, during a concert in Miami, lauded Biscet for his courageous fight. “Hold him your thoughts, hold him in your prayers,” singer Bono told the audience.
This week, he made the trip to the Jewish state to warn Israelis not to let their guard down. “Castro is Israel’s number one enemy,” he said. The regime has one of the world’s best intelligence services and sells information to countries and organizations that seek the Jewish state’s destruction, and has also hosted Hamas and Hezbollah training camps, he noted.
“I am worried about Israel [and its relation to Cuba] because it’s the only example of democracy and liberty and freedom of religion in the Middle East. And Cuba is a dictatorship that violates all those basic rights,” Biscet said. “As Israelis travel to Cuba and enjoy the beautiful landscapes and beautiful beaches, they perhaps don’t realize that this dictatorship is also undermining the State of Israel wherever it can.”
Havana unilaterally cut ties with Jerusalem some 40 years ago and has been a fierce critic of Israeli policies ever since. For decades, Israel and the US were the only countries supporting an economic embargo of the nation. Given Jerusalem’s close ties with Washington, Israel was widely expected to follow Obama’s course of detente with Cuba. “We have no conflict with Cuba; the disconnect between our countries is unnatural,” a diplomatic official in Jerusalem told The Times of Israel last year.
‘If you want to sleep with the enemy, go right ahead. But understand that you’re sleeping with the enemy’
Biscet and Azel, the University of Miami scholar, are not telling Israel not to establish diplomatic relations with Cuba (something Jerusalem would be interested in, though Havana seems currently disinclined), since all other countries in the world already have such ties. However, they want Israelis to be fully aware of Havana’s hostile stance and its destructive influence the world.
“If you want to sleep with the enemy, go right ahead. But understand that you’re sleeping with the enemy. Cuba is still absolutely Israel’s enemy,” Azel said.
“It’s a regime that has always been anti-Semitic, anti-Israel, pro-Palestinian,” he said. “It’s a regime that has a very close alliance with Iran and a regime that represent dangers for the national security of the United States and also for Israel.”
Besides his anti-Castro advocacy, Biscet, a devout Christian and staunch supporter of the Jewish people’s right to settle in their ancient homeland, also made some time for sightseeing. He was particularly looking forward to sticking a note into the Western Wall. What was he going to wish for? Biscet replied with a chuckle, as if the answer was obvious. He then said, “For freedom for Cuba and for my family.”