A Cuban doc­tor who moves his­tory

Cecil Whig - - OPINION - Michael Ger­son

— When awarded the Pres­i­den­tial Medal of Free­dom by Ge­orge W. Bush in 2007, Dr. Os­car 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 Bush In­sti­tute in Dal­las and fi­nally re­ceive the

WASH­ING­TON

award from Bush’s hands. Bis­cet ex­plains 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 on his de­par­ture. Know­ing the po­lice would rum­mage through his suitcase, Bis­cet left a sur­prise: a Cuban flag cov­er­ing his be­long­ings.

It is the kind of in- your­face 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 ex- pos­ing 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 ex­plains: “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 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-sized busi­nesses ( though not for pro­fes­sion­als such as doc­tors and lawyers). But jobs in tourism are re­warded to regime fa­vorites and cronies, in­clud­ing for­mer 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 old­fash­ioned 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 March visit to Cuba was viewed by many (and by him) as a diplo­matic break­through. Dis­si­dents see things dif­fer­ently. “For us,” Bis­cet’s wife Elsa says, “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 the ex­pe­ri­ence of 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, says Elsa, there are also “po­lice­men in the mind.” Ev­ery­one feels watched. “That fear is what now con­trols the pop­u­la­tion,” says Os­car Bis­cet. “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 Amer­i­can for­eign pol­icy. We ben­e­fit from the ad­vance of the demo­cratic val­ues that gave our na­tion birth — a birth at­tended by men very much like Dr. Os­car Bis­cet.

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@ wash­post.com.

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