Cuba's passion in '48 yields irony in '98

Susana Braciela
ublished Thursday, December 10, 1998, in the Miami Herald

PABLO Perez-Cisneros is determined to reclaim his father's legacy. Though he was exiled from Cuba in 1961, the former banker and city of Miami administrator also has good reason to reflect on his homeland today, the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: His father, Guy Perez Cisneros y Bonnel, a modern Renaissance man, not only was a celebrated writer and art critic, but also a tireless Cuban diplomat who helped shape that very Declaration.

Born in 1915, the son of a Cuban diplomat in Paris, Guy joined Cuba's foreign service at the tender age of 19. By the time World War II ended, horrified witnesses to the Holocaust had begun to search for global peace-keeping mechanisms based on respect for fundamental human rights and freedoms. Named by Cuba as a delegate to the United Nations Preparatory Committee, Guy Perez Cisneros vigorously promoted human rights at U.N. organizing meetings in 1945.

He also collaborated with Ernesto Dihigo, a Cuban law professor whose draft declaration was among the first considered when the U.N. Commission on Human Rights began work in 1946. He also pushed successfully for the Organization of American States to adopt its own American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man and to establish an inter-American human-rights court. That court continues to function.

In the home stretch of what became the Universal Declaration, during the third session of the U.N. General Assembly meeting in Paris in 1948, the U.N. Economic and Social Council painstakingly vetted each clause through 85 meetings. Perez Cisneros was at each, touting the OAS Declaration as a model and suggesting that each article begin: ``Everyone has the right to. . . .''

So it is that most paragraphs in the Declaration do begin as Article 2: ``Everyone is entitled to all the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration, without distinction of any kind, such as race, color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth, or other status.''

Of course, there were many powerful voices. Eleanor Roosevelt -- widow of President Franklin Roosevelt -- was chairman of the U.N. Commission of Human Rights and championed the Declaration. She called it ``the international Magna Carta of all men everywhere.''

Emile Saint Leau of Haiti served as rapporteur and presented the Declaration to the General Assembly, describing it as humanity's ``greatest effort [to establish] a new moral and juridical order based on liberty, equality, and fraternity.''

Gaining consensus was difficult. The beginning of the Cold War had cast a chill over East-West relations. At the General Assembly, delegates from the USSR and its satellites launched attacks on the proposal: The Declaration omitted vital protections, did not have revolutionary spirit, did not mention democracy's struggle against fascism and Nazism.

``During the crackling assembly debate,'' reported The Miami Herald, ``Andrei Vishinsky, chief Soviet spokesman, accused the United States, Britain, and France of paving the way for World War II. The fiery deputy foreign minister seized the occasion to launch one of the bitterest attacks yet against the West.''

Roosevelt saved the day. Through her diplomatic finesse and because of the respect that she both commanded and gave to the delegates with whom she worked, she secured grudging Soviet agreement not to block the Declaration's passage. So the world's first bill of rights passed without objection, the Soviets and their allies abstaining.

For all involved, especially Cuban Ambassador Guy Perez Cisneros y Bonnel, it was a crowning achievement. He was 33 at the time. Four years later, at 38, he died of a stroke.

His son Pablo, who survived a stroke himself two years ago, takes pride in the anniversary of that ``serene moment in which humanity's civic education came of age.''

Ironically, people in Cuba and Haiti -- 50 years ago in the forefront of the human-rights struggle -- today enjoy few of the Declaration's protections. In Cuba, an omnipotent state systematically violates the human rights of its citizens. In Haiti, the state remains too weak to protect rights. Worldwide, much remains to be done before the ``inalienable rights of all members of the human family'' are universally respected.

Progress is progress, however. We also see people today in nations of the former Soviet empire, repressed for so many years, enjoying some of the freedoms enumerated in 1948. And a spate of treaties and conventions have been ratified to ensure rights and provide mechanisms for prosecution, the case of Chile's Augusto Pinochet being an example.

All in all, it has been a good first-50-year run.