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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

FCF Archives - Brothers in Thought: Oscar Elías Biscet and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas

Twelve years ago at Florida International University, the coordinator of the Free Cuba Foundation, Neri Martinez published an essay reflecting on the nonviolent activism of two Cubans. At the time Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet was in prison serving a 25 year prison sentence and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas was free, although most of the leaders in his movement were in prison, alongside Oscar Elías. The Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter blog yesterday published an account of Biscet's activism making reference to the Free Cuba Foundation. Looking back at this essay in 2004 one is haunted by Neri's warning that Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas could still be imprisoned or suffer an "accident." On July 22, 2012 he was murdered along with MCL youth leader Harold Cepero in an "accident" engineered by Castro's clandestine intelligence service.

Oscar Elías Biscet and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas nonviolence practitioners
Brothers in Thought: Oscar Elías Biscet and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas

By Neri Martinez

Oscar Elías Biscet and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas are two examples of great activists arising from a national civic movement that seeks a democratic Cuba where human rights are respected. They both share a common framework of values grounded in Christianity, strategic non-violent struggle, and the power of speaking truth to power. Oscar is currently serving a 25-year prison sentence in a dank and dark underground cell far from his home and family. Oswaldo has had his home assaulted and death threats painted onto the walls and door of his home. The regime at various points underestimated these men and the power of non-violent resistance. A partial history of their actions speak for themselves.

Migdalia Rosado and Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet (1999)
Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet
  • In 1999 Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet led dozens of members of the opposition on a 40-day prayer fast -- one day for each of Castro's 40 years in power at the time opening and ending each day with a prayer and the reading of a psalm. This 40-day prayer fast was duplicated throughout Cuba and led to the participation of thousands of Cubans throughout all of Cuba.
  • Dr. Biscet organized teach ins on non-violent resistance, civil disobedience, and the writings and thoughts of Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. Creating new activists, educating them in the philosophy and practices of nonviolent resistance, and leading them by example in challenging the regime.
  • Biscet was arrested Nov. 3, 1999, after holding a news conference to announce the activities for human rights day, displaying three upside down flags, an international sign of distress, just as 20 foreign leaders gathered in Havana for the Ibero-American summit. Fidel Castro had denounced Biscet as a ''little crazy man'' but instead of ignoring him Castro had Biscet arrested to prevent him from leading a demonstration Biscet had organized for December 10 to mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and protest the death penalty in Cuba. Despite his arrest the only scheduled street protests known to have taken place in Havana on December 10, 1999 had been organized by Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet.
  • Upon his release from a maximum security prison in Holguín province on October 31, 2002 he organized a press conference to denounce prison conditions demanding that the International Red Cross be allowed access to Cuba's prisons (something that the United States has given to Al Qaeda prisoners in Guantanamo but Castro still denies all Cuban prisoners.)
  • On December 6, 2002 Oscar Elias Biscet was re-detained with 16 other dissidents after they attempted to meet at a home in Havana to discuss human rights. When police prevented them from entering the home, Oscar Elias Biscet and the others sat down in the street in protest chanting "long live human rights" and "freedom for political prisoners." The group was arrested, though most of them were released shortly afterwards, but Biscet remained in custody.
  • Despite the fact that he was already in detention during the crackdown, Oscar Elías Biscet was tried together with a number of dissidents who were arrested in March 2003. He was sentenced under article 91 of the Penal Code to 25 years in prison.

Oswaldo Payá, Regis Iglesias, Tony Díaz Sánchez (2002)
 Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas
  •  In 1988 Oswaldo founds the Christian Liberation Movement ("MCL") In 1990 State Security detained, interrogated and threatened Payá with prison if he continues his civil defiance.
  • Payá calls for a national dialogue and collects signatures to make this call for dialogue legal under Cuban law. On June 11, 1991 a mob, organized by the dictatorship, attacks his home ending the signature gathering process. The front of his home is vandalized with messages such as: "Payá, CIA Agent", "worm", "long live Fidel", and "down with Payá." He had to move his family to his in-laws.
  • In 1995, Payá is one of five organizers of the Cuban Council (Concilio Cubano). State Security detains him and orders him to discourage the meeting. Concilio had requested permission (as is
    required by law) to be able to meet. The regime's response was a massive nationwide crackdown and the shoot down of two Brothers to the Rescue planes in international airspace.
  •  In 1999, along with other opposition leaders, Oswaldo drafts the manifesto titled All Together ("Todos Unidos").   In March of 2001, "Todos Unidos" summons dozens of opposition groups to collect the 10,000 signatures necessary to make the Varela Project a Bill of Law.
  • In May of 2002 representatives of  "Todos Unidos," headed by Oswaldo Payá, deliver 11,020 signatures of voters to the office of the National Assembly of Popular Power making the Varela Project a bill of law under the Cuban Constitution.
  • In December of 2002 Payá wins the European Union's Sakharov Award, and the day before he is granted an exit visa by Castro to receive his award his house is trashed and death threats are left on the door of his home by State Security. He travels the world addressing the European Parliament, meeting with Vaclav Havel, Pope John Paul II, Vicente Fox, and others before returning to Cuba in early 2003.
  • On March 18, 2003 the regime engages in a massive nationwide crackdown leading to long term prison sentences ranging from eight years to 28 years in prison totaling over 1,400 years when added up together for 75 activists. Over 40 of the 75 are activists who have worked on Project Varela.
  • In October of 2003 Payá and members of Todos Unidos deliver more than 14,000 new signatures supporting the Varela Project.
Comparing and contrasting nonviolent tactics
The history of Biscet's actions is one of training new activists and protesting not just in private homes but also on the streets of Havana. In addition he has succeeded in organizing activities that have had a nationwide network of activists supporting and duplicating his projects. The network he formed with the forty day fast started at Tamarindo 34 made possible other initiatives such as the Varela Project. Payá on the other hand has used aspects of Cuba's socialist legality to expose the lawlessness of a regime that does not even respect its own rules. He could still be imprisoned or suffer an "accident" but it will expose the regime's hypocrisy, and its failure to follow its own laws.

Both Payá and Biscet have been influenced by Gandhi and more so by the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr.  Payá in his address to the European Parliament upon receiving the Sakharov Award declared, "The first victory we can claim is that our hearts are free of hatred. Hence we say to those who persecute us and who try to dominate us: ‘You are my brother. I do not hate you, but you are not going to dominate me by fear. I do not wish to impose my truth, nor do I wish you to impose yours on me. We are going to seek the truth together'."

Oscar Elias Biscet in a letter smuggled from inside a Cuban prison on June 1, 2003 writes: "I feel kidnapped only for defending the right to life and the right of all Cubans to live in freedom. Remember I will never betray a just cause: that of defending human rights. ... What inspires me is alive: God and the great teachers of nonviolence, present today more than ever. As Martin Luther King said: "If a nation is capable of finding amongst its ranks of people 5% willing to go voluntarily to prison for a cause they consider just, then no obstacle will stand in their way." Their actions and words demonstrate that Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream is deeply shared by not just Americans but by Cubans as well.

The Free Cuba Foundation celebrate the courage and example set by both Oscar Elias Biscet and Oswaldo Payá Sardiñas because we share their principles:  speaking the truth in order to empower defenders of human rights in challenging an unjust system using non-violent means. We invite you on January 28, 2004 to join us in remembering the values of the great teachers and activists of non-violence: Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr. and how they are being pursued today in Cuba.

Neri Ann Martinez,
Free Cuba Foundation
January 28, 2004