Ernesto Dihigo, an ambassador in times of unrest

Memory of a Cuban intellectual and diplomat.

The recent reestablishment of diplomatic relations between Cuba and the United States has given rise to a series of historic remembrances in the press of both countries and a name that seemed totally buried in oblivion has reappeared once and again: that of Dr. Ernesto Dihigo y LópezTrigo (Havana, 1896- Miami, 1991), the island’s first ambassador in the United States after the triumph of the Revolution and the only one to have that condition until the appointment last summer of José R. Cabañas, given the time lapse of more than half a century of interrupted ties.

Dihigo was not a simple member of the foreign service called upon to carry out that mission because of the situation at that time, but rather an intellectual with a very long experience as a diplomat, who in addition had a very important career in the university chair and in the Cuban Academy of the Language.


He was the son of philologist and Professor Juan Miguel Dihigo y Mestre, whose work he would help to organise and continue during his last years. He demonstrated his talent when he graduated in 1918 in two university careers: Law and Philosophy and Letters. Almost immediately he acceded to a chair in the first of these faculties, where he taught several subjects for more than four decades, though he especially stood out in Roman Law, a subject for which he wrote a textbook with several editions. Between 1941 and 1943 he was dean as well as a member of the University Council and formed part of the Editorial Council of the magazine Universidad de La Habana.


All this did not hinder other cultural work such as acceding to a seat in the National Academy of Arts and Letters in 1922 – when he was barely 26 years old, which was not common in those times – and that his entrance speech was dedicated to such a singular subject as “The fundamental factors of Gothic sculpture”. Moreover, he collaborated in journalistic publications like El Fígaro and Cuba Contemporánea.


In 1933, after the fall of the government of Gerardo Machado, Dihigo was already a prestigious personality that would accede to one of the vice presidencies of the National School of Lawyers and the following year to the Higher Electoral Tribunal. However, he would earn his most important position during the governments of the Authentic Party, a period still not sufficiently studied, when in the heat of the nationalist fever from the recent revolution that Ramón Grau knew how to astutely capitalize on, Cuba had a considerable voice in international forums and was able to demonstrate one of the most brilliant stages of its diplomacy.


In 1945 a delegation sent by President Grau participated in the Inter-American Conference on Problems of War and Peace, held in Chapultepec, Mexico. The so-called “Dumbarton Oaks Proposals for a General International Organisation”, drawn up by the United States together with the big powers, would the assessed there. The Cuban delegation made up by State Minister Gustavo Cuervo Rubio, Gustavo Gutiérrez, experienced poet and diplomat Mariano Brull and Dihigo himself, rashly refused to accept such a document and drew up alternative projects which, despite pressures by the U.S. government, were considered at the meeting and sent to the San Francisco Conference.


In this conclave they again defended their viewpoints with which they aimed to limit the powers of the big powers in the new world organisation and they obtained, with the backing of the Panamanian ambassador and some lobbying with Anna Eleanor Roosevelt, ex U.S. First Lady and representative of her country at the Conference, the creation of a Special Human Rights Commission which she would preside over between that year and 1952.


He was also present in April 1948 at the foundation of the Organisation of American States, when the Cuban delegation headed the approval and inclusion in its bases that economic pressures on a country were one more form of attacking it and should be condemned by this new body.


The Cuban government named Dihigo a delegate to the brand-new United Nations and his voice would be notable during its second general assembly, at the famous November 19, 1947 meeting when he explained his personal vote against the creation of the state of Israel. It was surprising that the small Caribbean island was one of the 13 states to vote against and, moreover, one of the two non-Islamic states among them, with which they were upsetting the position of the United States and made the representatives suspicious – a lie never refuted – of having sold their votes to Arab bribery. During that session the ambassador expressed prophetic words:


“Cuba has demonstrated its empathy with the Hebrews and the esteem for their qualities, since it has admitted in its territory thousands of them who today live among us freely and peacefully, without discrimination or prejudices, but we cannot vote here according to their wishes because we consider that the partition of Palestine goes against law and justice. First of all, the initial base of all claims is the Balfour Declaration, which caused the problem that today we have before us; and the Balfour Declaration, in our opinion, completely lacks legal value, since in it the British government offered a thing it had no right to dispose of, because it did not belong to it. Moreover, accepting its validity, which is what is now sought to be a fact, goes way beyond its terms, since it promised the Hebrews a ‘National Home’ in Palestine, keeping safe the civil rights of the Arab population, but it did not offer a Free State, whose creation would surely affect those rights it tried to safeguard.


“But even admitting what has been done, the partition we are studying goes against the terms of this mandate, which in its Article VI ordered that the rights and the position of the non-Hebrew population of Palestine not be affected, and it can hardly be sustained that those rights are not affected when more than half of the natives’ territory will be robbed and several hundreds of thousands of Arabs will be left submitted to the Hebrew government and placed in a position of subordinates there were they were formerly the owners.


“We have solemnly proclaimed the principle of free determination of the peoples, but we see with great alarm that, when the moment to apply it comes, we forget it.”


His position in Geneva in 1955 was also vertical when he was a member of the Buraimi Tribunal, responsible for resolving the border dispute between Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi – current capital of the United Arab Emirates – and decided to resign before the final verdict was given due to the tactics used by the Saudi monarchy to achieve its ends, which were not alien to its powerful ally, the United States.


During a part of the government of Carlos Prío, 1950-51, the lawyer was named State Minister replacing Carlos Hevia. One of his tasks was the opening in Havana of the UNESCO Regional Office on February 24, 1950 at the venue of the Academy of Sciences of Cuba.


After Fulgencio Batista’s coup d’état in 1952, he remained far away from public posts. Like other prestigious figures, from Mariano Brull to Guy Pérez Cisneros, his services were dispensed with in the legations abroad. He remained in his university chair, in addition to working in the lawyer’s office he owned with Drs.MartínezGiralt and Llansó.


A few days after the triumph of the Revolution he was named ambassador to the United States. This decision could be explained since the first ministerial cabinet included figures from the Authentic and Orthodox parties with which he had been linked for professional reasons and who knew of his work, like Premier José Miró Cardona, professor of Law of the University and president of the College of Lawyers of Havana, as well as State Minister Roberto Agramonte, also a professor of that faculty, of which he was the dean in the late 1930s.


Dihigo was succeeding in the embassy Batista’slast representative, architect Nicolás Arroyo, who had headed the mission since April 1958 until the close of the year, at the time when the U.S. government had started abandoning its former ally to its fate.


The new ambassador placed all his experience, intuition and tact to carry out his difficult work, but the circumstances did not help him: the conflict with Cuba started growing since the very start of his work: suffice it to recall the revolutionary government’s decision on January 9 to make the U.S. military mission leave the country, the campaign unleashed around those same days by the death by firing squad of those who had committed crimes during the previous government, as well as the start of the Agrarian Reform, the lowering of prices for medicines and the nationalisation of the Cuban Telephone Company.


By March, the hostility of the White House as well as of the major industrial and financial circles toward the island was manifest. Moreover, the brand-new ambassador had to receive with alarm the news from the cabinet in Havana. Premier Miró had resigned on February 16 and Agramonte would do so in May. In addition, the alarm had been set off with the presence in the government of figures linked to the Communist Party and the first rapprochements to the Soviet Union. None of this must have left him indifferent since he, like many of the intellectuals of his time, had serious prejudices against communism, especially in its Stalinist aspect.


There’s a picture at Washington DC’s airport on April 15, 1959 in which Dihigo is embracing the young Prime Minister Fidel Castro during his first visit to the United States. It gives the impression that he is receiving his former university student with sincere enthusiasm. He had to advise him for some days on the political and social twists and turns of the U.S. capital, prevent some “fits” that could damage his mission, introduce him in the labyrinths of diplomatic receptions. There was no way he could prevent President Eisenhower’s particular animosity toward the visitor to be noticed. He was a prudent and valuable aid, though his stylewas not made so visible for the press in the reports about that delegation of hirsute rebels.


By October, the backing received from the United States by certain groups of armed conspirators led to a Cuban protest before the Department of State. Relations became extremely heated. In November Dihigo was summoned to Havana for consultations. He officially ended his mission there because he would not return to Washington, though he kept his appointment as ambassador until diplomatic relations were broken on January 3, 1961.


On his return to Cuba, the lawyer tried to return to his chair, but the university atmosphere with its desire for fast reforms was not alien to excesses and arbitrariness. The lack of respect toward old professors and even the expulsion of some of them without founded reasons bothered him and he decided to retire in 1960.


It was then that he was able to dedicate himself to a philological vocation not developed during his youth. He organised the bibliography of his father and published it as a pamphlet in the print shop of the National Archive in 1964. He tried to continue a work not concluded by his father about Cuban idioms in the novel Cecilia Valdés and he worked for years in one of his own researches: Cuban idioms in the dictionary of the Royal Academy of the Spanish Language, published in Madrid in 1974 by the Association of Academies of the Spanish Language. He dedicated a great deal of his activity to the Cuban Academy of the Language, of which he was the director for almost a decade.


In 1989 he travelled to Miami with his wife CaridadLarrondo. He no longer had relatives in Havana and increasingly less friends. Perhaps that explains why he decided to bid farewell to his warm home on 43 and Third streets in Miramar, with its library full of books and manuscripts and, already a nonagenarian, he settled in that place in Florida where he passed away in 1991. By then very few people remembered him in Cuba. However, he would have to be remembered, not as an ephemeral ambassador in times of crisis, but rather as a great specialist in Law deeply linked to Cuban culture. (2015)

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