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Cuba's Biscet becoming face of dissident movement

WASHINGTON - Winnie Biscet remembers Oscar Elias Biscet as any daughter might her divorced father: he pampered her during weekend visits, once giving her a puppy, on another occasion, a BMX bike, a prized possession in Cuba.

He picked her up at school every day. A devout Baptist, he never smacked her when she misbehaved.

Then in 1999, he vanished. That's when she learned that her doctor father was also a Cuban human rights activist. He would spend her teen years in jail, where he still languishes, serving a 25-year sentence.

"He told me they can arrest me, but they can't finish me off," Winnie, now 19, told McClatchy Newspapers. "He told me not to worry, that some day we will be together."

On Monday, President Bush awarded Biscet the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one the United States' two top honors for a civilian (the other is the Congressional Gold Medal). Winnie and Biscet's stepson, Yan Morejon, planned to attend the ceremony.

It's an honor that will cement Biscet's growing role as the face of Cuba's jailed dissidents, even though the Afro-Cuban doctor is far from a household name in his own country, where the media are under strict state control.

Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, who lobbied the White House for months to give the medal to Biscet, believes Biscet will galvanize his country someday the way Lech Walesa did in Poland, Vaclav Havel did in the Czech Republic or Nelson Mandela in South Africa.

"He is a man of the revolution, who grew up in this corrupt system of the Castro thugs and has only known that system, and he's rejected (that) in favor of peace, democracy and liberty," she said. "And so I thought that he would be the fitting symbol for this movement that will sweep the island of Cuba."

Interviews with Winnie, other family members and human rights advocates who know him paint a portrait of Biscet as a devout doctor with an ability to connect with ordinary folks and a determination to use Gandhi-like means to end a communist system he considers oppressive.

Biscet was born poor. His father worked at the Havana port and his mother was an office assistant. Studious and disciplined, he graduated from medical school in 1985. His troubles with Cuban authorities began shortly thereafter. He protested the long hours and was suspended for one year from Havana's National Hospital.

In 1997, he founded the Lawton Foundation on Human Rights, named for his Havana neighborhood, and conducted a clandestine study of the high abortion rates in Cuba. In February 1998, he was expelled from the Cuban health system.

His opposition work went into overdrive. Between June 1998 and November 1999, he was arrested 26 times.

On one occasion, he marked the anniversary of the 1996 downing of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft by Cuban MiGs by publicly displaying large photographs of the four pilots killed in that incident. He wrote a letter to the Baltimore Orioles in March 1999, imploring Cal Ripken not to play in Cuba.

In mid-1999, his group carried out a 40-day "liquid-only" fast — one for each year of Fidel Castro's rule. Biscet expressed himself in biblical terms, noting the battle was not just against Castro. "We fight against evil, not the evil-doers," he told an interviewer.

Castro called Biscet "a little crazy man."

At a press conference in late 1999, Biscet displayed three Cuban flags upside down, which he said was a historic form a protest by Cuban patriots.

He was arrested and charged with dishonoring national symbols, public disorder and inciting delinquent behavior.

"In no moment was there an intention to dishonor national symbols," Biscet told a three-member tribunal that would condemn him to three years in jail. "I respect those symbols. I am Cuban."

After his release in 2002, Winnie Biscet recalls throngs of neighbors in the mostly poor black neighborhood of Lawton flocking to her parents' house to greet her father.

"My father isn't that well-known, but the people who know him loved him as if he were a president," she said.

Thirty-six days later, on Dec. 3, 2002, Biscet was arrested again. Four months later, he would be condemned to 25 years in jail for receiving money and help from the United States, along with 74 other activists, in what became Cuba's harshest crackdown on dissidents in decades.

Elsa Morejon, Biscet's second wife, told McClatchy Newspapers by phone from Havana that her husband had called her last Tuesday from the Combinado del Este maximum security prison and already knew he'd won the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

"He told me he would dedicate the medal to the victims of communism in the world and to Cubans who want a free Cuba," she said.

Angel Garrido, a fellow doctor who runs the Miami chapter of the Lawton Foundation, said the jailed dissident had instructed stepson Yan to keep the medal in Miami, until Cuba is free.

Seven other people received the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Monday. They are: Gary S. Becker, an economist at the University of Chicago; Francis S. Collins, who led the Human Genome Project to map the full human genome; Benjamin L. Hooks, the former executive director of the NAACP; Henry J. Hyde, the former Republican Illinois congressman; Brian P. Lamb, the founder of CSPAN; Harper Lee, the author of "To Kill a Mockingbird," and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's first female president.