". . . and having done all . . . stand firm." Eph. 6:13


‘Awakening in the Cuban the Seed of Freedom’: Oscar Elias Biscet and the Opposition Struggle (Part 2)

November 25, 2023

This is part two of a three-part series; read part 1 here

The official name of the fast led by Oscar Elías Biscet at 34 Tamarindo Street in Havana in 1999 was semantically very evangelical: “Undoing the bonds of impiety.” It denoted a strong charge of what is known in the Christian world as spiritual warfare. Likewise, the number of days scheduled for the celebration of the fast, 40, allowed two readings. On one hand, the 40 years of Marxist tyranny in the country, which had ended in January 1999. On the other, in Christianity, the number 40 has particular connotations.

It is the time of trial, the time necessary to approach God, to return from the crooked course and ask for mercy. Forty years passed before the Hebrew people entered the Promised Land. Jesus fasted in the desert for 40 days. For 40 days and nights the rains fell during Noah’s time, causing the flood. And for 40 days, Goliath challenged the Israelite army before David struck him down.

Monday, June 7, 1999 was the first of the 40 days of the Tamarindo 34 Fast, for the freedom of political prisoners and respect for human rights. Among its promoters, in addition to Biscet, were Rolando Muñoz, Aída Valdés Santana, William Herrera Díaz (Liga Cívica Martiana), Marcos Torres León, and Juan Gregorich (Partido Democrático 30 de Noviembre). From that corner of Luyanó, during the first month, they wrote dozens of letters to politicians and personalities from around the world, including the dictator Fidel Castro and Pope John Paul II.

The peaceful demonstration, which began with a program of reading and intoning of Psalms, saw replicas pop up in the following days in Matanzas, Villa Clara, and Granma, among other provinces. There were arrests, expulsions from work, and harassment of fasting people.

In the statements to the press of the time, the Christian spirit of the fast was manifested. The headquarters were visited by foreign diplomats, such as from Japan and the United States. Cubans living in other parts of the world, such as Zoé Valdés from Paris, also joined the fast.

The extensive coverage from independent Cuban media then reported that “after the first 30 days, the fasters were visited by more than a thousand Cuban dissidents and activists, among whom they distributed 800 copies of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

After that action, which caused several aftershocks, Biscet was imprisoned from November 1999 to 2002, under accusations of “outrage to national symbols” and “public disorder.” He was in solitary confinement, in an underground prison in a damp and dark cell, known as being “walled up.”

In an interview with Diario Las Américas, he said that his cause was one of conscience because he supported the right to life and opposed the death penalty. However, “They convicted me of incitement to commit a crime and public scandal. For expressing my rights in the street, they beat me; on one occasion they broke my foot, on another they burned me with a cigarette in a police station. In a tyrannical regime, an opponent can even lose his life; that is not the worst, because one can be left alive and with traumatic injuries.”

Biscet’s resilience is impressive. In the dialogue with the journalist, he also recalled how Fidel Castro described him as mentally ill because he protested in favor of life. “He put so much pressure on me to become mentally ill that in prison they applied all kinds of torture to me to discredit my personality. Thank God I was able to resist and today I am here with you healthy, ready to return to my country and continue our fight to achieve democracy and freedom.”

One of the tortures they applied to him was to make him think that he could die at any moment. They left him in the same cell with murderers who had just committed a crime. On other occasions, they left him with mentally ill people who were stopped from receiving medication for days. Biscet says that his knowledge of medicine helped him to help those same people.

Upon learning of his history in prison, some of the people serving sentences for common crimes ended up offering him support. In a prison in Pinar de Río, several inmates prevented another group, instigated by the political police, from beating him.

“The prestige I gained in prison was obtained because I was always in resistance and civil disobedience. From the first day I entered until I left, I never let myself put on prisoner clothes, they put them on me by force and I took them off. Nor did I ever get up to count the prisoners in protest,” Biscet commented in the interview.

Only a month after he was released from prison, he was arrested and subjected to another trial as part of the Cause of the 75. The sentence was 25 years. In fact, Biscet spent more than 11 years in prisons in Havana, Pinar del Río, and Holguín, much of those times under torture. All that time, the regime never allowed religious assistance to reach him.

The doctor was banned from sun exposure for months. They locked him in the same cell with mentally ill patients, who were deprived of proper medication, so that they would attack him.

“This pain has taught me that human beings can be better,” said Biscet. “Suffering for a just cause makes the world better.” This philosophy, antithetical to the widespread postmodern hedonism, refers to the idea of suffering as an insurmountable part of living righteously.

But the Bible calls for joy. As 1 Peter 1:7 says, “Just as the quality of gold is tested by fire, your trust in God is tested by problems. If you pass the test, your trust will be more valuable than gold, because gold can be destroyed.”

The exercise of virtue is a challenge in the face of the moral corruption of a regime that totalizes citizen life. And that integrity stands out like a canary in the coal mine. During the confinement, solidarity correspondence from Great Britain alone sent between 10 and 15 letters a day to Elsa’s house in Havana, including postcards with the word “Hope,” paragraphs of encouragement, and children’s prayers. Most of them arrived at her house already opened at the hands of the political police.

“Despite the pain, we see God’s blessings daily. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is entering my husband’s cell,” said Elsa before bursting into tears in front of the camera of American documentary filmmaker Jordan Allott in 2010.

In a poem written in prison and sent on a scrap of lined paper to his wife, Biscet lamented: “Happiness is over./Everyone wants it, few seek it./I will still only find you, oh Freedom!”

However, Biscet’s was not an orphan cause. In Washington, D.C., young people gave passersby’s postcards and balloons with the name of the Cuban dissident in order to explain his case. They handed out two cards: one addressed to Fidel Castro, and another to then-President Barack Obama, advocating that any negotiations include the release of Biscet and other political prisoners, and that Havana allow the Red Cross to enter the prisons.

In 2010, the poet and diplomat Armando Valladares said that there was “great admiration throughout the island for Oscar Elías Biscet. For that reason, they have had to put him in jail, they keep him incommunicado, they harass him, they torture him. They can even kill him. The dictatorship is afraid of Oscar Elías Biscet in the street. They know that there are many people in Cuba who are, more and more every day, losing their fear of the dictatorship.”

And he stated: “He is the most important figure, in recent years, of the opposition in Cuba.”

Yoe Suárez is a writer, producer, and journalist, exiled from Cuba due to his investigative reporting about themes like torture, political prisoners, government black lists, cybersurveillance, and freedom of expression and conscience. He is the author of the books “Leviathan: Political Police and Socialist Terror” and “El Soplo del Demonio: Violence and Gangsterism in Havana.