Cuba's passion in '48
yields irony in '98
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
Thursday, December 10, 1998, in the Miami Herald
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
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
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.