Congressman Charles Rangel—a frequent, forthright defender of civil liberties on national television—has long been a paladin of black political and human rights in this country. He also worked to help remove South Africa’s apartheid government, and he has been arrested at the Sudanese embassy in Washington for protesting the continuing genocide in Darfur.
Because of his record, I was surprised when—as nonviolent Cubans had the courage to gather in Havana on May 20 for the first public mass meeting for their freedom during Castro’s 46-year dictatorship—Rangel was among the only 22 members of the House of Representatives who voted against a resolution (392 in favor) supporting this “historic meeting.”
Then, as noted in last week’s column, Rangel attacked American politicians who “refuse to give the [Castro] government the respect that it deserves.” And he dismissed the Cubans defying the dictator—who, in 2003, locked up for long sentences more than 70 dissenters.
Said Rangel: “I don’t think it helps to be supporting insurgents overthrowing the [Castro] government.”
In view of this strange position for a passionate opponent of repressive governments, I asked several people who know Rangel if they could explain it. They were as surprised as I was, and couldn’t.
But since Rangel also recommended reaching out to Fidel rather than “isolating” the people of Cuba, I have a suggestion as to how he himself can do just that. Surely Fidel would welcome this supportive, highly visible, anti-Bush-administration congressman if Charles Rangel were to go to Cuba to ask about one of the dissidents whom Amnesty International designates “a prisoner of conscience”—and who was named president of honor at the May 20 meeting of the Assembly to Promote Civil Society in Havana.
In its March 18, 2005 report on these prisoners, Amnesty cites “Oscar Elías Biscet González, 43. Sentence: 25 years . . . Prison: Combinado del Este Prison, Havana.”
This is not the first time Dr. Biscet, a black physician, has been put away. When he was on the outside, as head of the Lawton Foundation for Human Rights, Biscet was locked up for three years for “disrespecting patriotic symbols.” At a news conference, this follower of Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and the Dalai Lama committed the disgraceful crime of hanging a Cuban flag upside down. What sentence would Charles Rangel have given him?
Then in 2002, as Mary Anastasia O’Grady—a valuable chronicler of human rights abuses in Latin America—reported in the May 6, 2005, Wall Street Journal:
“Dr. Biscet’s plan to create small groups meeting in private homes to promote human rights landed him in jail again and he received a 25-year sentence.”
She noted that the website free-biscet.org reported that since Biscet was put away, “he has staged protests against Cuba’s violation of human rights at the prison with acts of civil disobedience, such as fasting and holding prayer services.”
During one of those acts of civil disobedience—his wife, Elsa Morejón Hernández, says—Dr. Biscet was among the prisoners who shouted, “Down with the Castro-Communist dictatorship.” Like civil rights fighters in the United States and South Africa, Dr. Biscet has refused to cower in his cell, and at times that’s been one of Castro’s “punishment cells.”
In these windowless three-foot-wide underground rectangular cells, the toilet is a hole in the floor; there is no access to light and no water, except that provided by the guard at his considerably less than compassionate discretion. As a political prisoner, moreover, Dr. Biscet often is forced to share his cell with nonpolitical inmates, some of whom have committed violent crimes.
Last year, according to an article on free-biscet.org, he was deprived of food rations for periods of time. “The family found Dr. Biscet’s high blood pressure under control [he also has severe digestive disorders] but found him very thin, having lost around 60 pounds of body weight since his incarceration in Prison Kilo 8. [He has since been transferred to the Havana cell named above by Amnesy International.] His teeth are totally deteriorated due to the dire prison conditions he has suffered . . . and lack of medical attention which he refuses to accept because he distrusts the intentions of the military medical personnel at the prison.”
Himself a doctor, Biscet is aware that the priority of military doctors at a prison is not the state of the patients but the commands they receive from their political superiors.
For example, consider the medical care of the American detainees, as reported in “The Abu Ghraib Scandal You Don’t Know” by Adam Zagorin in Time magazine (February 14, 2005): “[T]he medical system at the prison became an instrument of abuse, by design and by neglect.”
Dr. Biscet finds ways to send messages from his cell, among them “My conscience and my spirit are well.” As Mary Anastasia O’Grady writes, “Perhaps his worst transgression is his courage, which makes him a dangerous inspiration to the many Cubans that are now organizing in small groups [throughout the country].”
Charles Rangel could be an inspiration to prisoners of conscience not only in Cuba but in other nations—and to the “ghost prisoners” whose names we do not know, and who are held in secret locations around the world by the CIA—if he went to Havana and spoke to Fidel Castro about Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet.
Fidel is an imposing presence, but so is Charles Rangel. In reaching out to Castro, the congressman could ask to see Dr. Biscet. In that small cell, Charles Rangel could provide this unbreakable black prisoner with reminiscences of another man of conscience and courage—Dr. Martin Luther King.
But now, New York City councilman Charles Barron—who once feted Zimbabwe’s brutal dictator, Robert Mugabe, at City Hall—says of Castro (The New York Sun, May 26): “He is a true champion of human rights wordwide.” What world is Barron living in?