Interview with Adolfo Pérez Esquivel

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Written by Alexcia Chambers, Contributing Editor

The story of Adolfo Pérez Esquivel is one of an international prisoner turned Nobel Peace Prize winner. A prominent human rights activist, Esquivel co-founded the NGO Service, Peace and Justice Foundation (SERPAJ) in Argentina in 1974. When military dictators overran numerous Latin American countries in the 1970s, Esquivel’s advocacy made him a target, leading to more than 14 months in Brazilian, Ecuadorian, Argentinean, Chilean, Paraguayan, and Uruguayan prisons. Regardless, the work of SERPAJ persisted. SERPAJ served to denounce the actions of the Argentine dictatorship after the 1976 coup, and helped countless political prisoners of the Dirty War. Esquivel’s unwavering activism in the face of adversity won him the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, and still today he continues to fight for the protection of human rights with SERPAJ.

While he is primarily focused on Latin America, Esquivel does not narrow his scope. In a recent interview with Diplomatic Courier, Esquivel discussed what the Nobel Peace Prize has done for him, his personal experience with the Latin American dictatorships, violence in the Middle East, and the biggest problem facing the world today.

DC: Tell me about your experience with the military dictatorship.

The military dictatorship was tremendous for everyone. We are survivors. I left the country five days after the coup in Argentina. In Europe my friends were ready for a trip that took a year of preparation. I wanted to suspend the trip, but they wouldn’t let me. They told me to come and explain to them what was happening in Argentina. I traveled with my wife. Shortly after, everyone at Service of Peace and Justice (SERPAJ) was taken prisoner, along with my eldest son. We started a very strong campaign [against the dictatorship] in Geneva.

[From Geneva, my family and I] went to live in Vienna. We were in Vienna, but my work was in Latin America. Then we went to Brussels, then to Paris, where I met Leonidas Proano, a Latin American bishop known as the “Bishop for the Indians of Ecuador.” He told me to come to Latin America, to Ecuador, to work as a missionary in indigenous communities. We went to Ecuador, and there we were all taken prisoner.

They imprisoned 17 Latin American bishops and four Spanish-speaking Americans. Then they expelled us from Ecuador and I returned to Argentina where I was detained. The first 32 days I was locked in a tube. It was a very small cell. That was a powerful experience for me. We had to knock on the door and the guard would light the way with a flashlight. It was a torture center. When I knocked on the cell door to use the bathroom, I saw many inscriptions on the wall outside my cell. Names of loved ones. Football clubs: Boca Juniors above, River Plate below. There were also insults about the military. But what impacted me most was a bloodstain on the wall. A tortured person had written, “God does not kill.” You could even see the fingerprints. On the morning of May 4, 1997, they took me from my cell and brought me to an office. There were soldiers waiting.

They handcuffed me and told me I was being relocated. They did not tell me where. I asked, but no one answered me. They put me into the very small cabin of a vehicle. After an hour and half, they took me to the aerodrome of San Justo. They opened the door and chained me to the back seat of the plane. The plane took off and went straight to the Rio de la Plata. I saw the Uruguayan coast. That was where the bodies of people were thrown from the plane. I began thinking about my family. I prayed. One of the officers has his back to me. He had an injection to give me to put me to sleep. Many people were found on the Uruguayan coast, carried in by the current. They found people with their hands tied with wire or cuffed. They were the people who were thrown from the plane. They were on the death flights. After a while an officer told the pilot that he had new orders to bring the detainee to Villa de Morón, called the Palomar.

The plane turned and went to Morón. The plane landed, but I was not allowed to get off. I remained chained on the plane. After two hours, an officer came and told me to be happy because they were talking me to U9. I never thought I would be happy about going to jail. I was lucky they didn’t throw me from the plane. From there they took me to U9, a maximum-security prison. I was there for 14 months. There were five days of torture after death and assassination threats. Two days before the World Cup final, I was told that, by executive order, I would be put on probation with the first military unit in Palermo.

The reason they didn’t throw me from the plane was because of strong international pressure. Even the Kennedys asked for my life—Edward was a Senator—as well as the Evangelical Church and the Catholic Church. This strong, worldwide campaign saved my life. I am a survivor thanks to international solidarity.

Even two days before I received the Nobel Peace Prize, there were attempts on my life. The Nobel Peace Prize does not guarantee anything. The Prize is a headache. Two people with pointed guns ran behind the car that my son and I were riding in. Just in time, a cab crossed in front of the gunmen and saved us. They could not shoot.

But I have never stopped smiling at life. Because the day we stop smiling at life is the day they beat us. The day they destroy us. There is no need to fret. An activist cannot be bitter. An activist has to have the ability to see life with hope. The Nobel Prize is no guarantee of anything.

For me, prison was a huge lesson. I learned a lot. First, I learned that they could not destroy me, psychologically or spiritually. In prison I learned to be a free man. My body was imprisoned, but not my mind or my spirit. During the tortures, one starts to think about how to survive all of that. It’s like starting to think from another perspective. I had friends in jail that went crazy. Still today, they have not been able to recover from that drama. Others became more empowered with another vision of life.

DC: How does the Nobel Peace Prize help you to effect change in the world?  

For me the Nobel Prize means nothing but to work for the sacrifices of the people. When they give me the Prize, I accepted it on behalf of the people of Latin America. My work is not the work of an individual. For some, the Nobel Prize serves his or her personal prestige. But that does not interest me.

But it does help. I say the same things as I said before, but now that I’m a Nobel Prize winner, people listen. Before, I said the same thing but no one listened. In other words, the award allows me to reach places I could not have reached before. But there are people that say more wonderful things than I do, and no one listens. For me, it is an instrument to serve the people. That’s where the Nobel Prize ends. I would be doing the work that I am doing with or without the Prize, and I am going to continue doing it.

DC: Who deserves the next Nobel Peace Prize and why?

There are many people who do good work, but there is one person who is working hard to accompany the people—in multiculturalism and in the rights of the people. That person is Evo Morales, President of Bolivia. He is an indigenous Aimara, a man who has done tremendous work, including recovering cultural identities, values, the language of all peoples—which is of great cultural diversity. Evo was recently up for election, and he won 68 percent of the vote.

He has been confronted with many problems. The area of Cochabamba, called the crescent provinces, experienced enormous massacres in Pando. In response, Evo did not send the military. Instead he sent two thousand unarmed police officers. He demonstrated a totally different attitude. Yes, there was death; there was repression. If we send in the military, they will charge them all. But this was another way of thinking.

And another important thing to note is Evo’s continental vision. He does no think only of himself or his nation. I have known him for many years, and I nominated him as a candidate for the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. But they did not give it to him. I think he is a person with much more merit than Obama, Al Gore, or the European Union, who were given the Nobel Peace Prize for doing nothing. On the contrary! …For doing the opposite of peace.

DC: In what sense?

By causing wars, causing conflict, sending troops, and selling weapons. That has nothing to do with peace. Nothing of dialogues or agreements between peoples. So I sent a letter to Obama and said, “Look, I was surprised that you were given the Nobel Prize, but now that you have it, try to act accordingly and fulfill what you proposed in your electoral campaign.” He did nothing. I do not know him personally; it’s possible that on a personal level Obama is a very good person. But he is a slave [to the political system]. And a slave makes no decisions; a slave obeys. He wanted to close the prison of Abu Ghraib and could not. He wanted to close the Guantanamo prison and could not. Three Cubans are still unjustly imprisoned in the United States and have not been released. In Iraq, he said he would withdraw troops. But today there are more American troops than ever before. In Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Israel and Palestine… Obama’s election created expectations, but they were not fulfilled.

DC: But the situation in the Middle East has changed a lot in the last six years.

I think it has changed for the worse.

DC: So then is it surprising that there are still a significant amount of U.S. soldiers in the Middle East? How else do you combat actors like the Islamic State?

We cannot talk of an Islamic State. There is a fundamentalist organization that reacts to all of the aggression that comes from the West. I do not condone the organization in any way. I do not condone it. But I have to understand why they have come to this point.

Why doesn’t Israel want a Palestinian state? Why do they attack them even in mosques? Now Palestinians [are retaliating]. Violence begets more violence. What is important is to arrive at a solution with dialogue. The same happened with Pope Francisco when he tried to reach an understanding between Simon Perez and Hamas. He invited them to the Vatican to talk together and to think together, but then came huge massacres in Gaza. There is no, “this is right and this is wrong.”

Both have to try to reach agreements devised by the United Nations. Agreements that the United States does not respect. The United States continues to support Israel. This is the major problem. And in this situation, Obama cannot decide. This is a crucial part of the policy of the United States. When a president thinks differently, they kill him, as Kennedy was killed. Kennedy’s death was not an accident or the doing of a madman. Killing Kennedy was a political decision. He was not responding to the interests of the military industrial complex and large financial corporations. We do not accept that a terrorist appeared and shot and killed Kennedy.

DC: So we can resolve the issues with the Islamic State and in Syria through dialogue?

Who armed the groups that are fighting against Syria, or that were against Saddam Hussein, or that were against Kadhafi? Who armed them? The United States, Britain, France, and Belgium.

DC: But now that there is a problem and more people are killed every day, what do we do?

What happens is that violence begets more violence. What we have now is the sum of violence, but not the resolution of these conflicts. The same is happening with Israel and Palestine, who endured more than 60 years of blood, death, and suffering of the people. Now they are at a crossroads. And if this problem is not solved, there is no solution. The problem is the United Nations.

When the UN was constructed, there were 57 member states. After World War II, five countries were awarded the veto. Today there are 193 member states of the United Nations, but the UN still follows the same structure it did in 1945. This is not a democratic structure. When something happens with Israel and Palestine, the United States exercises its veto. In Chechnya, Russia also exercises its right of veto. China exercises its right of veto when they speak of the great massacres—a genocide, if not an ethnocide—that took place in China against the Tibetan people. And in such cases, the UN does absolutely nothing, because it is the Security Council that decides.

The UN has no democratic structure. We must reform it and revitalize it, because the UN does do some important things. But regarding political decisions and militaries, the United Nations does not intervene. Those who decide are the countries that dominate the world stage. They are the ones who decide: this yes, this no, this suits me. It’s not that they are seeking truth and justice. They are looking for convenience. The United States is seeking convenience, just as China, Russia, France, and Britain seek convenience.

Regarding Islamic groups, we must be very careful, because sometimes there are groups that use religion for other intentions. Islam is not violent. This is not a war of religions. Islam coexists with Christians, Jews, and Buddhists even with their differences. But it is not violent. We must also mention the violence of Christians, which is not insignificant.  What frames U.S. policy? What does it defend? What was the U.S.’ reason for imposing the National Security Doctrine in Latin America? It was in defense of Christian and Western civilization. Its capitalism against the communist world, the Soviet Union, socialism, and all that opposed it. And today, the objective is to shake the fear of Islam. But there is no reason to be afraid of Islam. Islam is not of a terroristic nature. Terrorists are terrorists for other reasons: political, economic, military, and strategic. But it is not that Muslims want to impose their worldview or belief on the rest of the world.

Now if you attack, attack, attack, as Bush did, as Obama does… logically the people will react. This is what we have today. But, Islam is not a terrorist or violent religion. If not, we need to talk about Christians in the same terms. Yes, Christianity has committed many atrocities in the world. Do not forget the persecution of the Jews, do not forget what happened here in the Americas. So, religion is one thing. The use, or misuse, of religion is something else. It has nothing to do with religion.

I talked a lot with the Iranians, and what they want is to be respected: their identity, their culture, their vision, their worldview, and their religion. They are not terrorists like the media wants to portray. The propaganda says: Those are the bad guys; we’re the good guys. It’s like American movies. Things do not happen like that. Americans are always destroying everything, but in the end Americans are the saviors.

DC: What do you mean?  

Like in Rambo. Commandos go, destroy everything… and notice that it’s always one person. This is what marks American culture: individualism. Not community. In Latin America, we prefer community. In the United States, they prefer the individual. It is a culture of individualism. Superman, Batman, Rambo… All of this shows an ideological concept of individualism, not community. It’s another way of thinking.

I worked a lot in the jungle of Petén in Mexico. When Guatemalans fled their country because of the massacres, it was not individual people that left. There were groups of 100, 120, 150 people that left. Because they live in communities…they cannot imagine life without community. It is another cultural form, structure, thought. Societies heavily influenced by the United States are marked by individualism. We must overcome that.

DC: As a whole, what is the most pressing issue facing the world today?

“The” problem in the world is water. You can live without gadgets, without computers. You can live without many things. But no living being… can live without water. Water is vital for all living things. Today there are 32 countries in the world that do not have water.

Water is vital. But every day, society is contaminating water. In mining for resources, day-by-day we are running out of water. This is fatal. I gave a lecture at a conference recently and said, “the fish does not see the water because it lives in it.” And a psychiatrist who was next to me, Alfredo Grande, said, “Adolfo, you would have to add that the water is contaminated.” Many times we are like fish. We do not see the water because we live in it, and we do not see that it is contaminated. We can live with nothing, but no living thing can live without water. There are countries rich with oil but have no water.

DC: And how do we fix that problem?

I don’t have prescriptions, but I think we have to take care of what we have. To have something without knowing we have it is the same thing as not having it in the first place. We have it but we don’t know we have it. So we waste it. Humans do not have many needs. Our consumer society has generated artificial needs for us. But we can live very simply and be happy. We can live with the basics and leave the resources we waste for others to have. Thus we could better share things. Today I was speaking with some entrepreneurs about production, mining, and monocultures. I said, “Look, I think we are confusing development and exploitation. One thing is exploitation: to make the most revenue in the least amount of time to create one product, leading to monocultures. Another is sustainable development, which allows you to regulate the conditions of life. Not to waste it, but to preserve it.”

This is the difference between waste and preservation—[so that we can] have a resource for as long as possible. It’s like having a beautiful cake and eating it all in one sitting. It will make you sick. But if you eat it in pieces and you save the rest for another day, you can continue eating.

We have vital needs, and we have artificial needs. This consumer society imposes needs on us. For this reason, water, to me, is fundamental. Humans believe they are the owners of the universe. We are not the owners; we are a part of it. If we do not take care of our home ourselves, who is going to take care of it? We are destroying it. That is what is happening today.