After losing one friend it appears I have lost yet another. Dr. Miquel J. Alfonso Martinez, one Cuba’s most outstanding diplomats who in my experience played a dominant role in the development of the United Nations Working Group on Indigenous Populations (as one of its active members). Alfonso had been, as he told me, a speech writer for Fidel Castro just as I told him I had been a speech writer for the great Quinualt Nation leader Joe DeLacruz. We found common ground and experiences quickly. As we got to know each other I told him that I was actively engaged in efforts to facilitate peace talks between the Miskito, Sumo and Rama and the Nicaraguan government in the middle 1980s. Meeting in Genevé, Switzerland Alfonso and I talked about this for some time and I suggested to him that Fidel Castro was known to have a favored spot for North American Indians because Indians in Eastern Cuba had protected him and his troops during his battles with Batista during the revolt in the 1950s. I asked if he would carry a message to Fidel asking him to send a message to Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega. The message was to ask Ortega to cease the war with the Indians and engage in peace talks to bring the “third front” to an end. Alfonso, said in his graceful English, “I will try, but I can’t promise anything.” (Nicaragua was then fighting against attacks from Honduras and from Costa Rica at the same time the Nicaraguans were attacking Indian villages all along the east coast using helicopter gun ships and missiles.)
Within a short time, Ortega invited Miskito leader Brooklyn Rivera to engage in peace talks. While there had been a round of talks in Columbia they had failed to move the process. These talks were subsequently convened in Mexico City at the Mexican Foreign Ministry. A temporary halt of hostilities was agreed to. Though it took five more years before the war between the Miskito, Sumo and Rama with Nicaragua came to an end and several more rounds of peace negotiations, it was Miguel Alfonso Martinez’s quiet diplomacy that helped bring that messy war to an end.
Alfonso had served as the UN Special Rapporteur for the Study on Treaties, Agreements and Constructive Arrangements between States and Indigenous Peoples, having been a former Chair of the UN Working Group on Indigenous Populations. His work as the Special Rapporteur produced a monumental analysis contributing to our collective understanding of the existing and past legal relationships between indigenous nations and states. His report became an important contribution to the development of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2007. For this work he was both praised and condemned. I for one remain among those who hold him in high praise.
I shall not forget this genteel intellectual from Cuba who worked tirelessly for peace, and as a member of the UN Working Group he was a gentle but firm diplomat. I am grateful to this modest man with whom I sipped many coffees in Switzerland and elsewhere. I shall miss him.
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