A few weeks ago, President Barack Obama invited my husband, Óscar Elias Biscet, and me to a dinner to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the creation of the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Many thought that in light of Obama’s efforts to improve relations between the United States and Cuba, Gen. Raúl Castro, Cuba’s president, would approve a passport for Óscar so that he could attend. Such was not the case.
Óscar is a physician, but he is not allowed to practice medicine. Amnesty International has named him a prisoner of conscience for his years in jail for defending human rights. He is a follower of the philosophy of Gandhi and King. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Óscar the Medal of Freedom. But he could not receive the award in person because he was in prison, where he had been sentenced to a term of 25 years. Óscar was released in 2011, but in many ways he’s still a prisoner because he can’t leave the island.
I, however, was permitted to travel to Washington, and I attended the recent dinner, where the president and Secretary of State John Kerry told me that they regretted Óscar’s absence.
Because of the widespread belief that Cubans now have the right to travel abroad, some have expressed surprise that Óscar was not allowed to leave the island. The right to travel is enjoyed without restriction by billions of people worldwide. It is recognized by the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
But there is much confusion about what is happening in Cuba today. For example, the political prisoners released a few years ago through the offices of the Catholic Church were compelled to accept that their release was conditioned on their exile, and that of relatives including children, to Spain.
My husband is grateful to Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, to Americans and to people in Europe and Latin America for their support of Cubans’ desire for freedom. Óscar would have wanted to speak to the president about the tragic conditions in which the Cuban people live:
* Regime repression has increased to a level unparallelled since the 1960s. Hundreds of arbitrary arrests have been made this year, as well as physical attacks on peaceful demonstrators.
* Raúl Castro does not permit Amnesty International, the International Committee of the Red Cross or similar organizations to visit Cuban prisons.
* The promises of Raúl Castro are all too reminiscent of ones made by his brother Fidel. In 2007, Raúl Castro said that every Cuban would have a glass of milk. We are still waiting.
* International humanitarian aid sent to the island after Hurricane Sandy was not distributed to people in flooded areas but instead given to armed forces and directed to stores where it could be resold at prices well beyond the reach of ordinary Cubans.
* Despite Obama’s efforts to improve bilateral relations, the Cuban regime continues to hold a U.S. citizen hostage. Alan Gross was condemned to 15 years in prison for giving a portable computer and a cellphone to Cuban Jews, actions not recognized as crimes in the civilized world.
Many thought that Raúl Castro’s accession to power would end the government’s support of international terrorism and of terrorist anti-American regimes around the globe. But just this summer, Panama intercepted a North Korean ship carrying a load of Cuban sugar. Beneath the more than 200,000 sacks of sugar were Soviet-era missile radar equipment and other weapons — in violation of U.N. sanctions against the provision of weaponry to North Korea’s tyrannical regime. In recent days, the Cuban regime has been carrying out a vast military maneuver, known as Bastión 2013, to defend the island against a U.S. invasion that will never come.
As the Christmas season approaches, my husband and I pray to God that the resources the Cuban government devotes to its armed forces and to the repression of the civilian population will instead be used to ameliorate the poverty and hunger of the Cuban people. We pray also for the prompt arrival of freedom in Cuba.
The writer is a human rights activist and registered nurse who resides in Cuba. She has been forbidden from medical work since 1998.
© 2013, The Washington Post