HAVANA — The scene could be the downtown of any American town or city. A small group of pro-life protesters, banners in hand, picketing in front of an abortion facility.

But in Havana, in February 1999, such an event was unprecedented, even shocking. It was the first organized opposition to the 1977 law that legalized abortion in Cuba.

Any type of protest against official Cuban policy is certain to invite arrest and countless forms of unofficial intimidation and harassment in the communist country.

Yet, on that sunny morning last February about 20 protesters dared to do just that, publicly demanding an end to abortion at Hijas de Galicia Hospital, one of the largest abortion practitioners in the capital.

Oscar Elías Biscet, a physician, and Migdalia Rosado, a Catholic mother of four, led the group, convoked by the dissident Lawton Foundation for Human Rights founded by Biscet. The group held its ground before coming under assault by a communist mob as police looked on. Arrests followed, and both Biscet and Rosado spent the next 17 days in jail without due process or any explanation of their status.

“I have full confidence in God; I trust my life to him and I accept whatever he has for me,” Rosado said in a recent interview with the dissident Cuba Free Press, an Internet news service. “I trust in God that the best will come out, but I am prepared for the worst.”

An Opening

The collapse of Soviet communism, while not bringing down the regime of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, has emboldened dissident organizations. Only the Lawton Foundation, however, has made the defense of the unborn a priority.

The foundation began its work with a letter-writing campaign to the government that included formal proposals for the banning of abortion and the death penalty.

The proposals were ignored by Cuba's bureaucracy, and Biscet and his colleagues, including Rosado, were verbally and sometimes physically harassed by members of the Communist Party's Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.

Refusing to be intimidated, the Lawton members decided early last year to take the bolder step of staging a protest outside one of Havana's largest hospitals.

According to Rosado, what most infuriated officials was the fact that it took police and party employees more than 40 minutes to disrupt the protesters because of the interference of a number of passers-by who were sympathetic to the protesters.

Rosado and Biscet were accused of “anti-revolutionary conduct,” a felony, and the “promotion of violence,” crimes that are usually punished in Cuba with no less than seven years in prison.

They were surprised, then, to be set free without a court date after only 17 days.

Biscet was again surprised to discover, after inquiring about the status of any charges against him, that the case was closed. The authorities, however, balked at putting this in writing.

Rosado and Biscet doubted that this was the end of their ordeal.

“We always knew that our fight would imply risks, and we had decided to take it because the cause of life cannot be abandoned in Cuba, especially if we want to aspire to a better future,” Biscet told Cuba Free Press soon after his release.

Social Consequences

Biscet argued that abortion is not just a grave personal sin. It — along with many of the government's other policies on life issues — are a threat to the country's long-term viability.

Cuba is the only Latin American country in which abortion is legal and, not surprisingly, the one with the lowest birthrate.

The potential for disaster this implies has not been lost on at least some of Cuba's state agencies. The Center for Population Studies warned in 1998 that Cuba could become a country of older persons by 2020.

Juan Carlos Alfonso Fraga, director of the population center, explained that, due to birth control policies, which include free abortions, the population rate dropped to an anemic rate of 1.5 child per woman, well below the 2.5 that Cuba needs to maintain its population of 11 million. At the current birthrate, one of every four Cubans will be over 60 by 2020.

According to Fraga, the over-60 segment of the population already exceeds 13%. The authorities acknowledge that, due to the availability and promotion of birth control and abortion, the youngest segment of the population has become conditioned to think of small families as the norm and even in the best interests of society.

Aware of the trend, Pope John Paul II denounced birth control and abortion during his 1998 visit to the island. “The family, fundamental cell of society and guarantee of its stability, suffers a crisis that affects the larger society,” said the Holy Father during the Mass for the Family celebrated in Santa Clara.

Pope John Paul denounced abortion as “not only an abominable crime, but an absurd impoverishment of the human person and society itself.” He also said that it “leaves deep and negative traces in the young, who are called to incarnate the authentic moral values to consolidate a better society.”

A few months later, during the feast of Our Lady of El Cobre, patroness of Cuba, Cardinal Jaime Ortega y Alamino, archbishop of Havana, used the occasion of his first radio broadcast — a concession to the Church following the papal visit — to defend the right to life.

“In Cuba, we want to recover the values that forged the nation and made it grow and develop,” said the cardinal. “May God bless the efforts of those men and women in Cuba who are fighting for the cause of life.”

A decisive “summit” of dissident organizations was convoked for last November to coordinate policies in order to bring democracy to Cuba. Still at large after his brief jail stay in February, Biscet planned to attend the meeting and push for the inclusion of pro-life issues as part of a common agenda with other dissident groups.

He never made it to the meeting.

Biscet and Rosado were suddenly arrested Nov. 17 in connection with the February protest. The sword that had been hanging over their heads had now fallen.

While both defendants were facing the possibility of seven years in prison, Biscet received three years for his participation in the protest while Rosado was granted her release outright.

The Cuban authorities would not respond to the Register's requests for interviews, explaining that the newspaper's correspondent is not a registered journalist in Cuba, and does not have the right to make inquires.

Police arrested Biscet's wife, Elsa Moreón, last month following a visit to her husband in jail.

She was accused of “smuggling anti-revolutionary propaganda,” for carrying out of the prison a towel in which Biscet had written a message urging the United States to grant custody of the Cuban refugee Elián Gonzalez to his relatives in Florida.

He argued that Eliá n, a 6-year-old, normally should live with his father in Cuba, but explained that there is no respect for the rights of the parents or the family in Cuba. If he is returned to the island, Elian would only become “property” of the state, said Biscet in his message.

Elsa Morejón was released 14 hours later.

Biscet and Rosado insist that the pro-life fight must and will continue. According to Biscet, there are many young people awakening to the pro-life cause and becoming involved with the Lawton Foundation.

As for the risks, Rosado is prepared even to pay the price of being separated from her children.

“Everything that I have done is correct, God knows,” Rosado told Cuba Free Press. “I chose this fight and I have told God that I am ready to pay the most ultimate price and I have the support of my children in this.”

She has also rejected revenge or event resentment of her captors: “They [the communists] have families too, and I would never do to them and their families what they are doing to me and my family.”

Alejandro Bermudez is based in Lima, Peru.