The forgotten Cuban man who helped the Universal Declaration of Human Rights become reality

Today, on the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, we remember Gustavo Gutierrez Sanchez, a Cuban you have likely never heard of but who was instrumental in its drafting. Gutierrez Sanchez was also very much involved in the writing of Cuba’s 1940 constitution, considered by many a masterpiece in democracy and freedom. Fidel Castro’s revolution promised a return to this constitution, but as history shows, the communist dictator could never accept the democracy and freedom part.

Via Notes from the Cuban Exile Quarter:

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the forgotten man, and Cuba’s human rights legacy

Seventy-five years ago on December 10, 1948 the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted by the UN General Assembly. In 2008 in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of this important milestone, Mary Ann Glendon, the United States Ambassador to the Holy See, highlighted Latin American and Catholic contributions to human rights, and made special mention of the contribution made by Cuba that was documented in a diplomatic cable.

“The principal leader of the Latin American group in 1948 was a charismatic young Cuban representative named Guy Perez Cisneros. His son, Pablo Perez-Cisneros, attended the conference and recounted his father’s contributions to the UDHR, noting the gap between the Cuba of his father’s day and the deplorable state of human rights under the present regime. The work of Guy Perez-Cisneros and other delegates was captured in a 12-minute video presentation featuring archival footage of Eleanor Roosevelt and Guy Perez-Cisneros’ UN speech in support of the UDHR.”

However, Perez Cisneros was not the architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and until The Washington Post journalist David Hoffman explored this chapter of Cuban history in his 2022 book, Give Me Liberty: The True Story of Oswaldo Payá and his Daring Quest for a Free Cuba, this information was only available in some archives, and obscure blogs.

Hoffman found that the 1940 Cuban Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and Article 88g of the 1992 Cuban Constitution that made the Varela Project possible were largely the result of one talented Cuban who over the course of his career had been a diplomat, jurist, and scholar, but you’ve never heard of him. In fact, he has been called the “forgotten man.”

His name was Gustavo Gutierrez Sanchez and he was born in Camajuani, in the Province of Santa Clara, Cuba on September 20, 1895, and he died in exile in Miami on July 17, 1959 at age 63. In 1916, at just 21 years of age he had obtained doctorates in Civil and Public Law, and became Assistant Professor of International Public Law in the University of Havana, and in 1919 became the department head at age 24.

Carlos Márquez Sterling, a Cuban historian and statesman who led the drafting of the country’s 1940 Constitution, in 1976 wrote an article in Diario de las Americas where he highlighted Gustavo Gutierrez’s role in the drafting of the 1940 Constitution.

“Gustavo had formed part of the Bicameral Commission which drafted the project of the Constitution and I can assure you that many of the institutions that later found expression in our original document were based on previous works created by Gustavo Gutierrez.”

Hoffman in “Give Me Liberty” reported that the 1940 Constitution had a provision that had been drafted years earlier by Gustavo Gutierrez, and became “Article 135, Section F, which provided that laws could be proposed by congressmen and senators, government officials, courts, – and by citizens. ‘In this case,’ the constitution declared, ‘it will be an indispensable prerequisite that the initiative be exercised by at least ten thousand citizens having the same status of voters.”

The Cuban jurist believed that this clause would have given Cuban citizens a voice in public affairs that could have acted as a brake on Machado’s slide into dictatorship, or led to an earlier repeal of the Platt Amendment, or prevented Batista becoming a strong man. This provision somehow was recycled into the 1992 Cuban Constitution, and was the basis for the Project Varela that challenged totalitarian rule in Cuba beginning in 2002.

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