WASHINGTON—Nowadays, most of those who die for a cause either perish for the wrong cause or in order to bring death to innocent people. Islamist and nationalist terrorists have turned the noble concept of martyrdom into the opposite of what we were taught it meant. We have gone from Socrates elegantly drinking the hemlock in the name of philosophical inquiry to the female bombers who massacred dozens of Russians in Moscow by blowing up two Metro trains.

But in a godforsaken corner of the Western hemisphere, as if taking it upon themselves to restore the old tradition of martyrdom, a group of people have decided to die for a cause and harm no one else in the process. For weeks the world has followed the drama of the Cuban prisoners of conscience, many of them black, who have started a chain of hunger strikes demanding the liberation of their fellow prisoners. Orlando Zapata Tamayo, a mason who was one of the 75 activists and journalists incarcerated in what is known as the Black Spring of 2003, died in late February after a hunger strike that lasted more than 80 days. He was succeeded by psychologist Guillermo Farinas, who has now refused to eat for more than a month and has contracted a staph infection. Engineer Felix Bonne Carcasses has announced that if Farinas dies, he will replace him. Others are waiting, no less determined.

While these men give up their existence for a principle, a group of women symbolically dressed in white are also putting their lives on the line by taking to the streets day in and day out against the Castro brothers, whom they consider the murderers of Zapata and those who might follow. The Ladies In White—mothers, wives and sisters of the Cuban political prisoners incarcerated in the 2003 crackdown—have been kicked, punched, headlocked, dragged through the streets, insulted and arrested by mobs of government thugs. And they have not flinched.

The international commotion is such that political, civic and artistic leaders who until recently turned the other way in the face of a half-century of political persecutions in Cuba have felt compelled to express—cough, cough—their discomfort. Even Spain’s government, which was instrumental in blocking efforts by the European Union to defend human rights in Cuba, has belatedly criticized the repression. In Havana, the folk singer Silvio Rodriguez, a revolutionary emblem of the nueva trova musical movement, has begun to talk about taking the “r” out of “revolution” and replacing it with “evolution.” In Miami, New York and Los Angeles, under the leadership of Cuban-American icons such as Gloria Estefan and Andy Garcia, thousands of people have marched in protest.

Cuban martyrdom is not new—whether we speak of those Don Quixotes who took up arms against the revolution early on, the many would-be Mandelas who rotted in prison with no fame, or the families who perished aboard rafts trying to flee the island, giving a moral meaning to the Spanish word “balsa.”

But this feels different. In his “Encyclopedia of Politics and Religion,” Robert Wuthnow states that “a crescive society, one that is weak but on the rise, produces martyrs like those of early Christianity.” Their willingness to die “affirms the priority of culture over nature, law and civilization over biological self-interest.”

The gradual rise of a civil society built upon the foundations of law and civilization amidst the barbaric communist tyranny is precisely what these men and women are announcing to the world—and to their fellow Cubans, mostly barred from knowing what is happening by a news blockade. What a defining moment for Cuba; it is comparable to the rise of the civil society that made possible 1989 and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I remember my teacher explaining that the Greek origin of the word “martyr” was not directly related to the concept of death. It meant, simply, “witness.” Later, the Christian tradition of martyrdom, probably inaugurated by St. Stephen, gave it its new meaning; every other religion has its own version. When least expected, it has fallen upon a group of valiant Cuban men and women to not only restore the noble tradition sullied in our day by genocidal terrorists but also the original meaning of the word martyr. As witnesses, they are testifying the truth—indeed a deadly truth.