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Alberto Piedra, RIP: Memories

Alberto PiedraPeople dear to us live so long as we live, or at least as long as our memories function to keep them alive. Of course, frequent and even infrequent communion with the dear ones helps to keep the flame burning. When they are near physically, do visit them. When they are away, call if you can.

When they are gone, inevitably, you will be sorry to no avail; you will regret not having spent more time with them, and not having called them more frequently. It may sound trite, even trivial but for that it is also poignant: a way for us to help us cope with our loss.

We believe, some of us at least, that they are in a better world. Yet, we cannot move on ourselves. Regret meets a void, a gaping hole only they, the missing ones, could fill.

I am writing this about my friend, colleague, and mentor Alberto Piedra (29 January 1926-20 December 2021). But he is not the only one of the stellar cohort of IWP’s Co-Founding Fathers, which includes, among others, Herb Romerstein, Walter Jajko, and Tom Melady. Each of them I miss for reasons peculiar to me and to them. My reasons for missing Alberto are as follows.

At The Institute of World Politics Alberto Piedra was the Donald E. Bently Professor of Political Economy at IWP. He came to us from the Catholic University of America, where from 1963 he served as Chairman of the Department of Economics, teaching business ethics and the history of economic thought. Earlier, from 1955 to 1956, he instructed students in economics at the Universidad Catolica de Santo Tomas de Villanueva in Havana.

I met Alberto some twenty years ago when I came to serve at The Institute of World Politics. He taught philosophy, the classics: Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas. He radiated happiness and welcome.

We hit it right off. I referred to him as “Your Excellency” on the account of his Ambassadorship back in the 1980s. Actually, he was probably the only human being on earth who served as a government minister under both Fidel Castro and Ronald Reagan. More on this later.

Alberto knew all sorts of esoteric issues. This included things Polish. I think at our first meeting, he told me that his parents knew Ignacy Paderewski, Poland’s prime minister and a famous pianist. He was the Elvis Presley-cum-Michael Jackson of the day. The Piedras met him while on their honeymoon, crossing the Atlantic in the early 1920s.

Alberto further confided in me that his parents were great fans of Poland, Catholic Poland. And they knew quite a bit about it, knowledge they imparted to their son. I was pleased but wondered where the family acquired their knowledge from. Sienkiewicz? I inquired about a famous Nobel Prize Winner in literature. Not only, came the response. It was a weekly column in a Spanish-language newspaper, ABC, reprinted throughout Latin America in many venues, by Doña Sofía Guadalupe Pérez Casanova, an author, poetess, and journalist. Oh, I exclaimed, Mrs. Zofia Lutoslawska, Professor Wincenty Lutoslawski’s wife. Alberto beamed.

Alberto then told me that one of his most prized memories was when John Paul II prayed a private mass for him and his wife. They were right there at the Vatican in the late 1980s. I’m talking about a serious witness to history.

My relationship with Alberto was fun and games punctuated with serious matters. “It is a total disaster” became his most frequently meted out political, social, economic, and cultural commentary about the state of the world, including these United States. Never mind.

We would make jokes together – mostly esoteric with reference to obscure historical events. We’d sing songs together: mostly in Spanish. “Por Dios, por la Patria y El Rey” was his favorite: the Carlist “Marcha de Oriamendi” anthem from the 19th century. The Carlists were (are) decentralized Catholic monarchists. There were other songs as well.

It was all intimately connected to his life. Alberto was born in Cuba. As behooved a historical family with ties with the Old Country, Spain, the Piedras traveled to Madrid to raise their children there. Alberto’s first conscious memory was of a church burning. The arsonists were either anarchists or communists, he said. Then a leftist revolution broke out in the Asturias. It was put down with extreme prejudice by the military.

That was 1934. Alberto’s parents decided to leave for Switzerland. Two years later Spain blew up in a vicious civil war. From afar, my friend naturally sided with the Nationalist Cruzada against the Reds. He never ceased repeating about the pro-Stalin side slaughtering over 6,000 innocent priests and nuns and destroying tens of thousands of churches. Until the end, he kept a medal with a likeness of Franco on his desk in his IWP office.

Meanwhile, in the late 1930s, the boy and his siblings attended schools in Switzerland. The Second World War broke out. In 1940, Germany attacked France. The Piedras raced before the conquering Nazi armies to return home to Cuba, leaving the blood-drenched Old Continent behind.

Alberto went to a top high school and then to college. He eventually earned three doctoral degrees: in Law (University of Havana, Cuba, 1951); in Political Economy (University of Madrid, 1957); and in Economics (Georgetown University, 1962). His parents drummed into him – like my own mother and father – that one of the most important things in life is education. Evil people cannot take it away from you.

Knowledge is the most precious commodity. As my friend Michael Maibach never tires of reminding us, the word “capitalism” does not come from “capital,” but from “capita” – head. Hence, we say, it is all in the head, quite literarily.

Alberto filled his head with knowledge and then some. Along the way, he finally got the nerve to propose to the love of his life: Edita. Ubi tu Gaius, ibi ego Gaia. They were inseparable until the end.

Their bliss in the Cuban Shangri-la, one of Latin America’s most prosperous nations, ended all too soon. Alberto Piedra opposed the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista. When the strongman fled the country on January 1, 1959, Alberto immediately joined other opposition figures to set up an interim coalition government in Havana.

He would bristle when people referred to it as “Castro’s government.” Fidel Castro joined the free Cuban government only three days later. And he took about a month to make it unfree.

Alberto knew Castro from school. Once he asked me: Marek, do you know Castro’s favorite politician while the future Communist dictator was in college? I responded: of course, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, the leader of the radical nationalist syndicalist Falanga party in Spain. Alberto was very happy.

At any rate, soon Alberto was given word that he’d be arrested in 24 hours. He fled Cuba with his family, never to return.

The Piedras went to New York to see about their business affairs. The Castro regime expropriated them, but they still had some assets in the U.S.  Alberto described how upon visiting their bank, they were given a cold shoulder. A usually solicitous, if not outright fawning banker, led them to the lowbrow employee cafeteria instead of a posh restaurant as had been the case in the past. Alberto just laughed. Sic transit gloria mundi.

The Piedras took their greatly diminished position in stride. They had each other and a growing flock of children to keep them happy and occupied.

Alberto slowly rebuilt his life. It was mostly about academia. At first, between 1960 and 1962, he worked at the Organization of American States. Next, he taught at The Catholic University of America for thirty-six years, retiring in 1999. He first led the Latin American Institute and then chaired the Department of Economics.

Finally, IWP beckoned for the gentleman scholar. He graced us with his wisdom and wit full time until 2012. Afterwards, his visits became less frequent until they stopped. Alberto became frail.

In addition to his academic career, Dr. Piedra continued his involvement in politics. Naturally, he was busy with Cuban émigré affairs. Alberto never forgot to exclaim: !Viva Cuba Libre! He also became active in the Republican Party, in particular under Ronald Reagan. He served the Fortieth President as the United States Representative, returning as Ambassador to the Organization of American States (1982-1984).

Next, Alberto was confirmed as U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala (1984-1988).  As his public service, the most important was his heavy involvement in the anti-Communist wars in the region, including in Nicaragua and El Salvador. Privately, he insisted on attending mass daily and taking Holy Communion. When the chief of security and the commander of the Marine detail at the U.S. Embassy both objected, fearing the American top diplomat would be assassinated by the Communists, Alberto responded: At least I shall die in a state of grace. He was not flippant. He was faithful.

In 1988, he was transferred to the U.S. Mission at the United Nations where he served as the American representative at the Human Rights Commission, Senior Advisor for Latin America, and a liaison at the Economic and Social Council of the UN. He split his service between New York and Geneva. At the same time, he consulted for the Inter-American Development Bank.

Dr. Alberto Piedra authored a number of scholarly monographs, including Socio-Economic Change in Latin America (1970), Guatemala: A Promise in Peril (1980), El Renacer de la Libertad: La Transicion a la Democracia en Guatemala (1994), Natural Law: The Foundation of an Orderly Economic System (2004), and No God, No Civilization (2018).

I confess: I bugged him to write books. That way, a part of him would survive. I – we – would have his wisdom. Here is my favorite quote from his Natural Law:

“The essence of man lies in his human nature which is his driving principle; principle without which he would cease to be a man. Wherever a man exists there must also be his essence; an essence which cannot be subject to historical change. If it did, it would mean that man as man would also change and this would imply that once the essence had changed, there would be no longer man but a different being…  History is the history of man. Man as a collectivity and man as an individual is a combination of permanent nature and historical change… The essence of human rights lies in those rights that belong to the human being as such… They are the rights that man is entitled to and not what society, the state or any other international agency is willing to bestow on him. By the mere fact of being a man, man has these inalienable rights which are valid even if society would no longer consider them as legitimate rights.”

My family visited with ailing Alberto as frequently as we could and as much as he was able to have us over. My wife Monika would bring him Polish food; the little ones would chirp; our eldest recorded herself playing the violin to please him. Sometimes we would sing, or at least I would play songs he liked, including the Carlist Marcha de Oriamendi. We treated him like family, and he reciprocated in his kindness.

Alberto would usually entertain us in the sitting room, on the couch. We would sit together, holding hands. He would reminisce about Reagan and John Paul II, to my wife’s great delight because she specializes in them.

After a while, the visits took place in his bedroom. Alberto lay on his bed, praying the rosary. He would clasp my hand with his eyes closed.  At the end, he would invariably kiss me, on my hand and on the cheek. I always reciprocated. I am sorry I cannot return his kind embrazzo anymore.

I should be grateful because Alberto is finally with his Edita and with their Lord. So I should be happy for them. I am. But I am also inconsolable for they are both gone from this world. Viva Cuba libre y Viva Cristo Rey, Alberto!

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz
Washington, DC, 5 April 2022