By: Jan Mazotti Issue: Big Ideas, Smart People Section: Nobel
In his 1980 Nobel lecture, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel said, "I do not assume a personal honor, but receive it in the name of the people of Latin America, and most especially in the name of the poor, the most small and needy, the indigenous, the peasants, the workers, the young, and the many thousand members of the religious orders who work in the most inhospitable places, and of all of those persons of goodwill who work and struggle to build a society free from domination."
Pérez Esquivel is the son of a Spanish Catholic father who was raised primarily by his grandmother, an Argentinian Guarani Indian. He is a world-renowned artist. In fact, his large-scale murals and art works can be viewed in parks across Latin America and Europe. His faith in humankind and his belief in God are reflected in his paintings, drawings and sculptures. But in the mid-1970s, Pérez Esquivel became concerned about human rights abuses in his country, especially the treatment of local leaders who had been working for peace and democracy. So, in 1974, Pérez Esquivel gave up teaching and devoted his time to building non-violent movements for change in Latin America. That same year, he was named secretary-general of the newly formed Servicio Paz y Justicia (Peace and Justice Service or SERPAJ), a group that coordinates non-violent movements in the region.
As a result of his malcontent for the leadership, Pérez Esquivel became a target of the military dictatorship and in 1977, he "disappeared" and was imprisoned and tortured by the Argentinean military for 14 months. He was released only after being named Amnesty International’s Political Prisoner of the Year in 1978, which led to thousands of letters being written to the Argentinean government demanding his release.
Today, he continues his work with SERPAJ, where their focus has been to call for a cancellation of the debt of third world countries. He has also started two "Peace Villages" which provide training and housing for homeless and orphaned children in Argentina. As he said in his Nobel acceptance speech, he continues to believe in, "A change based on justice and built with love will bring us the most anxiously desired fruit of peace."
In an interview with ICOSA, Pérez Esquivel offered a proverb of the safari that says that the darkest hour is right before the rising of the sun—that there is hope even in the worst of circumstances—words which set the stage for the remainder of the interview. He urged that, "The youth of today never lose hope. There always exists a possibility and a new dawn."
ICOSA: When you look at the situation in Latin America now, relative to when you began your work there as a younger man; where do you see the most fundamental/real change like Bolivia, Salvador, Chile, Guatemala, etc.? What impact do those changes or lack thereof have on the region and the world?
Pérez Esquivel: There are changes taking place in Latin America every day. After the military dictatorships, we needed to review several things: the democratic processes, whether human rights issues were truly enforced, and the rights of peoples—not just those of individuals. The resistance of people against dictatorships, deaths, disappearances of people, torture, jails...it is here that we need to find the rights of peoples. The rights of peoples include the ability to be able to live in democracy and be able to build other spaces within that democracy. That is why we always relate democracy to human rights. If human rights are violated, democracy is weakened and a nation ceases being a democracy.
ICOSA: What current problems concern you the most?
Pérez Esquivel: In this moment there are so many problems in the world—wars, conflicts, hunger, social exclusion—I think it is necessary to analyze the world’s situation. An imposed neo-liberal model has been exhausted. We need to provoke change in the world away from today’s situation where humanity is unjust and asymmetric. We must ask how we can restore equilibrium in human relations. But also, we must ask how we can restore equilibrium when our planetary equilibrium is affected by the destruction of the ecosystem, biological diversity and water problems.
Discourse is not enough. It’s not enough to send letters to governments that don’t listen—they don’t even read the letters. Instead, we need a strong call to humanity’s conscience and the central axis. Words must be accompanied by actions or else they are without effect. We can compose tons of declarations, but if they aren’t accompanied with concrete actions, we are simply blowing air. In order to achieve concrete action, concrete decisions need to be made in international situations so that certain distinct organizations, churches, communities, social movements arise—and from there we can begin to make change.
There have been requests for this. In 2003, the Global Social Forum launched an international call to say "no" to war. And in all parts of the world people heeded that call. And, I supported the social cultural resistance. People have a great potential of which they are not aware. If this unity could be put into animated action, they could demand change. For example, the United Nations needs profound reform in order to democratize it. It is important to say no to foreign debt, which is a mechanism of domination and imposition on our people. And, we need to scale back the growing militarization of wealthy countries against poorer ones.
ICOSA: If you were sitting in front of world leaders, what issues would you ask them to focus on? What changes would you ask them to strive for? And, what advice would you offer them?
Pérez Esquivel: The crux of humanity exists in the present—so we must prepare a lesson of the present for those in the future. The lack of an international equilibrium—the imposition of one power like the United States, which wants to dominate the world—needs to have limits. And, international bodies need to be strengthened. My hope is that there are resistance movements in all parts of the world.
I always speak of small rivers that can’t be seen, but unite at some great point, and that how in some determined moment those rivers are like small historical movements of resistance which will contribute to one great cause. Those social movements have the ability to change the world. There are many such movements, like the French Revolution. There have been other movements such as the student movement known as "May ‘68" in Paris, and there have been many, many more. The social forums in Puerto Alegre, India are another case of an historical resistance movement. I think that these social forums are going to provoke changes while consolidating social, cultural, and political resistance in order to see other horizons in life. The global case of the women’s movement is one vital form of resistance today.
My other hope is a return to thinking about humankind’s relationship with Mother Nature, because we are losing Her—this little planet called Earth is being destroyed. I believe the greatest challenge for social and cultural movements is creativity and thought. We are at a stage of disarming "armed consciousness." If we don’t manage to disarm our consciousness—we are divided.
Our future depends on the lessons and the courage we have to have in the present. There is no other way! Concrete decisions need to be made. If not, we will not see change and we will be facing enormous challenges for the survival of humanity.