Soon after joining Cuba’s Foreign Relations Ministry, in the early 1960s, I learned about Victor Rabinowitz and Leonard Boudin. Before meeting them I already knew how much Fidel admired and respected these two distinguished American lawyers, who were representing Cuba in the midst of a very complex and difficult confrontation and a very uneven one.
At the time I didn’t imagine that I was going to be sent to New York to my first and only diplomatic assignment. It was not exceedingly easy to begin a diplomatic career, or any career for that matter, at the top and to transform yourself in a couple of years from a student of philosophy into the youngest ambassador ever at the UN. It did not help that I was representing a country that was almost completely isolated in the Western Hemisphere.
What helped me a lot was the friendship and solidarity of many New Yorkers and at the forefront of them was Victor and Joanne Rabinowitz. Something for which I will always be grateful to Victor is that he never believed in such things as a “generation gap” or intellectual superiority. Talking with him I never felt that he was a superior man, with a long experience as a superb jurist. We both ignored the fact that I had not finished law school.
Yes, we faced many odds, but we also had a secret weapon.
Let me disclose it for you. On more than one occasion I had very private talks with representatives of the U.S. administration (in the pre-Bush era, of course). Many years ago, I met with a rather high-level guy and we argued back and forth over the many issues that separate our two countries. We even entered into the legal disputes that we had and still have. I played my role, the underdog, the little guy from the small island victimized by the superpower of the world. I was looking out the window at the snow falling over midtown Manhattan when I heard the big man from Washington, very angry, changing roles and humbling: “OK, I cannot argue with you, but that’s unfair, because you have the best counsel in the world.”
Yes, indeed, I had the best counsel in the world. But, I had much more than that. I had the best friend and the best teacher and the best compañero.
Victor was a person of few words. He would never lecture you. He would listen attentively and then add a few words, just a few. But they were always wise and witty words.
I was not just the youngest ambassador to the UN. I was also one of the few to serve twice in that capacity.
Upon arriving there for the second time [January 1990] I found myself going to the memorial for Leonard Boudin. Those were different years. The world had changed. Forget the old ideals. Join the club. Repent yourselves. Those were the messages we were getting from almost every quarter. But I still had the best counsel.
I spent many hours talking with Victor and Joanne. Did I tell them how much I appreciated those talks? How much I missed those conversations?
Victor visited Cuba in January 1996, the last of his many trips to the island. He was then working on what was to become Unrepentant Leftist his personal memoir of a life completely dedicated to justice and freedom. We were beginning to come out of a really desperate situation through very dogged work, long journeys in which sleeping hours were like a horizon, a beautiful but unreachable idea. As soon as Fidel learned that Victor was in Havana he asked me to arrange for a meeting. It took place at midnight on a Sunday. We talked about the long road we had walked together and the huge obstacles that remained in front of us.
On the way back to the hotel Victor was silent, his face reflecting concern and profound meditation. At the end, speaking softly and weighing each word he just said: “keep trying, resist, you may succeed.”
A year later he sent me his book with a dedication that I took as his last attorney-client communication. He wrote: “To Ricardo, with hope for a better world some day, Victor Rabinowitz, January 1997.”
I want to tell my good old friend that we share his hope and we shall continue to strive for a better world; that would be the only real everlasting tribute to him.
Yes Victor, we will keep trying, unrepentant, forever.