Freedom is never free. The passing of Fidel Castro is a keen reminder that many liberties so often taken for granted in the West, even as they are rapidly diminishing in the face of radical secularism, are still not a given for many.
For over 55 years, the Castro regime perpetrated numerous human rights abuses. Basic civil liberties and freedom of the press were non-existent. Political opponents were detained, tortured or killed without cause. Liberalization of the nation’s abortion law quickly led the modestly sized island nation to become a country with one of the highest abortion rates in the world.
In the days following the revolution, Castro’s opponents were systematically rounded-up, put on trial in kangaroo courts and lined-up before firing squads. Castro’s own Agrarian Reform Chief promised that the regime “will erect the most formidable execution wall in the history of humanity.” Private property was nationalized and seized from both corporations and private individuals. Many Cubans lost everything.
Over the intervening decades, millions have fled the island, some so desperate as to venture out on the open ocean in tiny boats in the hopes of reaching the Florida Keys or to make a long roundabout trek through Central America. “I have more here [in the U.S.] in eight days than I ever had in my 42 years in Cuba,” one recently arrived refugee told the New York Times.
Anyone who dared to speak out against the injustices of the regime was arrested and handed-down sentences of ten or twenty years for “crimes” such as “dangerousness” or “pre-criminal activity.” Political prisoners were left to languish in squalid conditions in tiny, vermin-infested jail cells with almost no ventilation under the oppressively hot and humid Havana sun. Prisoners of conscience were either crammed into overcrowded jails or restricted to solitary confinement for years on end. Prison conditions in Cuba are so uninhabitable that from 2010-2011 alone, 202 prisoners died in confinement, according to statistics reported by the Cuban Government, a number that the U.N. Committee against Torture has characterized as “high.”
The Castro regime sought to maintain control over even the most minute and private details of people’s lives. The regime set-up an organization called the Comités de Defensa de la Revolución (Committees in Defense of the Revolution, or CDR) that was responsible for monitoring people’s personal lives and reporting them to the police for any signs of “counter-revolutionary” activity. Every block of every city across the country was assigned to a CDR. The CRDs became a crucial state mechanism for rooting out dissidents. Anyone perceived as against the regime or its Marxist ideals were arrested or subjected to picketing and harassment from citizen brigades mobilized by the police. Other times, however, the regime would resort to quicker and easier options, commissioning extrajudicial killings to permanently silence their critics.
Emigration, high abortion rates, and low fertility rates have suppressed Cuba’s population growth to a crawl and have suppressed the fertility rate to levels more akin to the West than to other countries with similar levels of economic development.
Like every Communist regime, Castro allowed unfettered access to abortion on-demand. Abortion quickly became a primary method of birth control and the abortion rate skyrocketed. The island nation of only 11 million people soon surpassed not only the United States in the number of abortions per woman of reproductive age, but even Communist China where forced abortions were widely performed under the one-child policy.
In 2013, over 84,000 abortions were performed on the island, according to the Cuban Government, which comes out to about one abortion for every 39 women of reproductive age in that one year alone. The number of abortions performed in Cuba in 2013 was nearly the same number of abortions performed Spain in 2004, a country, which at that time, had a population nearly four times that of Cuba.
But even these staggering numbers fall far short of illustrating the true scale of unborn life lost under the regime. The Cuban Government doesn’t report abortions performed during the five weeks of gestation, very likely the most common time during which women have abortions performed. Abortions carried out during the first five weeks gestation do not require confirmation of the pregnancy or parental consent and are hidden under the euphemistic guise of “menstrual regulation,” which is simply another name for an early abortion via vacuum aspiration. At clinics across Cuba it is in not uncommon for women to wait in long lines for an abortion, lines that are sometimes so long that they wrap around the building.
Abortion in Cuba is available on-demand for any reason up to 10 weeks gestation and up to 12 weeks with confirmation of pregnancy. Minors require parental consent for abortion, but only after 5 weeks gestation. In the U.S., Most states allow abortion virtually on-demand up to 24 weeks gestation and for reasons of “health” thereafter.
In an effort to prop-up the image of Cuba’s utopian health care system (where aspirin is hard to come by and where patients receive better care if they bring soap with them for doctors to wash their hands with) the Castro regime made lowering the infant mortality rate a priority. Doctors were under such great pressure to reduce the infant mortality rate that women were often pressured to abort any child that they feared could drive up the mortality statistics. Premature infants were often not given medical attention and left to die so they would not have to be reported. Infant mortality in Cuba was so low largely because at-risk infants were often either aborted prior to birth or neglected after birth.
For late-term abortions, the Rivanol method was often employed because it was considered safer for the mother than surgical abortion, an important consideration for doctors under pressure from the government to lower the maternal mortality rate. While the Rivanol method is highly effective in inducing labor, infants are sometimes born alive.
Dr. Oscar Elías Biscet, a Cuban physician who had practiced medicine on the main island for years, became disturbed when he learned of the abortion methods used by some health care workers. To see for himself the extent to which the brutal Rivanol method was being employed, Dr. Biscet carried out an undercover investigation and discovered that in several places, infants born alive from the procedure were suffocated in paper bags or left to bleed to death from their severed umbilical cords. Dr. Biscet found that the Rivanol method was being used particularly on girls as young as 12 years old who became pregnant while fulfilling their cultural education requirement to work in their countryside far from their parents for months at a time.
When Dr. Biscet began to speak out about the widespread use of Rivanol in the Cuban health care system, he and his wife were fired from their jobs in the government-run health care system. Between 1998 and 1999, Dr. Biscet was arrested 26 times for persistently speaking out against abortion and the suppression of civil liberties. Dr. Biscet’s relatives were not spared either, being subjected to harassment and torture by the regime. After Dr. Biscet was seen holding the Cuban flag upside-down, he was sentenced to three years in prison. And after being released for a mere 36 days, he was arrested again and condemned to a 25 year sentence which he served living under deplorable conditions.
Dr. Biscet was sent to a maximum security prison and forced to share a cell with dangerous criminals at times and at other times was restricted to solitary confinement in a tiny windowless three foot by six foot cell. His health quickly deteriorated, losing 40 pounds during one three month period. Dr. Biscet’s advocacy for human rights so enraged Fidel Castro that he became one of only a select few prisoners of conscience to ever be publicly denounced by Castro himself as “counter-revolutionary.”
Dr. Biscet perseverance for the causes of life and liberty have made him not only a hero for the Cuban people but for all who believe in civil liberties, the sanctity of human life and the right to speak out against the horrors of abortion. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Dr. Biscet the Presidential Medal of Freedom in absentia, the highest civilian honor awarded by the U.S. Government.
The Castro regime has left Cuba devoid even the most fundamental human rights, the right to life and the freedom of conscience. Despite the regime’s attempts to project a utopian image of governance for the world to see, they have instead left a once prosperous nation economically stagnated and have left its people with a hollowed out health care system where obtaining an abortion is far easier than gaining access to life-saving pharmaceuticals.
While unlike the Holodomor or the Great Leap Forward, the Cuban people are generally not starving en masse, the everyday Cuban often struggles every day just to get by. Even health professionals often struggle to make ends meet or are forced to leave the profession altogether for more profitable enterprises. Due to a lack of affordable housing, families often share a single room with neighbors. Outside of the areas frequented by tourists, much of the beautiful city of Havana—indeed the jewel of the Caribbean—is falling apart, now only a vestige of its former glory.
But it was not always so.
Many years before the Castro regime came into power, when Fidel was in college, he went out to the countryside on one occasion with university chapter of Agrupación Catolica Universitaria. Father Amando Llorente, a Jesuit priest who offered Castro spiritual direction for many years, also went along. They decided to go swimming in a nearby lake. But not long after, Fr. Llorente became exhausted and began to drown. Seeing Fr. Llorente struggle for his life, Fidel drove in after the priest and brought him safely to shore. Gasping for breath and with the unpleasant taste of murky lake water still stuck in his throat he glanced over at the young man who had saved his life with a mixed look of serene gratitude and incredulity with what had just transpired. “Father, should we not say three Hail Mary’s to Our Lady of Charity in thanksgiving for your life being saved?” Castro inquired with the honesty of an altar boy.
Let us not forget that even dictators were once children like the rest of us and that there is hope to reform even the most hardened of hearts. Raul Castro, life can be as simple and beautiful again as it once was when your brother was out on the lake, before the days when political prisoners were locked away for excercising their civil rights. Let your people be free from repression and want so that Cuba can once again be what Christopher Columbus once called “the most beautiful land that human eyes have ever seen.” When that day comes, should we not then not then say three Hail Mary’s to Our Lady of Charity in thanksgiving for a free and prosperous Cuba?