AS AMERICANS contend with state-sponsored terror against their countrymen and values, we may be heartened by the fortitude of those who have contended with state terror abroad.
There is a scene in Clint Eastwood’s Firefox where a Russian dissident tells Eastwood about his wife. An educated Jew, she had been in prison for 12 years for demonstrating against the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. "They do not treat her well in prison," he says pensively. In Paul Mazursky’s Moscow on the Hudson, Robin Williams sees a small assembly of Jewish dissidents with signs. The KGB arrives and breaks up the assembly. The well-dressed thugs take the dissidents’ signs and shove them into an ominous black sedan.
This is film based in fact. Many under-appreciated Russians defied Soviet slavery and suffered greatly for their indignation. Four days after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Konstantin Babitskii, Larisa Bogoraz, Vadim Delone, Vladimir Dremlyuga, Viktor Fainberg, Nataliya Gorbanevskaya, and Pavel Litvinov assembled at Red Square. They held banners reading "Long live free and independent Czechoslovakia" and "Shame on occupiers." The KGB quickly arrested and beat the dissidents, who received draconian punishments. (See Gorbanevskaya’s Red Square at Noon.)
At the time of the assembly, the Soviet Criminal Code prohibited "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda," "participation in anti-Soviet organizations," "circulation of fabrications known to be false which defame the Soviet state and social system," and other acts of conscience. With this repressive apparatus in place, Gorbanevkaya and her peers still gathered to protest the regime’s aggression. And that makes their act heroic.
Just as these and other Russians confronted Bolshevik bondage, today many dissidents in other countries struggle for their nations’ emancipation from totalitarianism.
Here is a photograph of Cuban dissidents Dr. Oscar Elias Biscet and Migdalia Rosado in February 1999 memorializing the Brothers to the Rescue—Armando Alejandre, Jr., Carlos Costa, Pablo Morales, and Mario de la Pena—murdered by Fidel Castro’s aerial assassins on February 24, 1996. Biscet’s signs describe each victim as a "human rights activist assassinated on February 24, 1996." Rosado’s signs read, "In memory of their humanitarian works" and "The one who sows love will reap love." (Christianity underpins Biscet and Rosado’s advocacy.) There is another sign behind them: "Justice."
Here is a photograph of Biscet, Rosado, Rolando Munoz Yyobre, and an elderly dissident protesting abortion in Cuba. The regime expelled Biscet from Cuba’s National Health System for his opposition to abortion, dispossessing him of his livelihood. He has been a prisoner of conscience since November 3, 1999. Their signs read "Abortion: Assassination of Children" and "No Abortion, Justice." In Biscet’s shirt pocket is a copy of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
In America, these assemblies would elicit praise, publicity, and debate. They would be commendable but not necessarily courageous since freedom of assembly and expression, generally speaking, are respected in America.
In Cuba, however, these acts equate to criminality on several levels. "Illicit association," "public disorder," "enemy propaganda," "disrespect," and other totalitarian prohibitions loomed when Biscet and his peers gathered to deplore tyranny and murder. It would have been understandable if they withheld their outrage to avoid persecution, but instead they defied Castro’s muzzle and affirmed freedom and life. And that makes their deeds heroic.
There is a tendency to acclaim past acts of heroism and ignore present ones. It is easier to praise what history has vindicated than what history will vindicate. In 2001, what risk is there in lauding Frederick Douglass and James Meredith? (Lauding Douglass in 1850 and Meredith in 1962 would have been another matter.)
This is not to say Douglass, Meredith, and other historic individuals should not be remembered and esteemed. Certainly heroes like Oscar Biscet and Migdalia Rosado—today’s Douglasses and Merediths—deserve no less esteem.
May these heroes’ steadfast courage guide us as we face the fury of anti-Americanism.