Raul Zibechi interviews Adolfo Perez Esquivel
“Young people today are more critical than they were in the seventies,” Adolfo Perez Esquivel observes, much to the contrary of what the majority of his generation thinks. He was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 during the middle of the Argentine military dictatorship. He was working with the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo and was educated as an architect and a sculptor. But he dedicated most of this time to teaching—he taught in primary and secondary schools and also in colleges.
In 1974 he gave up teaching to coordinate a network of Latin American communities for the liberation of the poor through nonviolence. That same year he founded El Servicio Paz y Justicia (The Peace and Justice Service, or Serpaj) and in 1977 he was arrested by the Federal Police, tortured and detained without trial for 14 months. In the conference he gave in Montevideo on the 13th of March, he explained that human rights are violated when people don’t have access to a healthy environment and secure food sources because a “speculative economy” of monoculture farming and mining is privileged over an “economy of production.” What follows is a summary of the conversation we had.
Raul Zibechi- People talk about the changes seen under progressive governments, but we hear less about the continuities that exist from earlier periods.
Adolfo Perez Esquivel- Neoliberal policies are still in effect. The economic policies imposed by the dictators and continued during the Washington Consensus have remained to the present day and have even become more profound. There were important changes regarding the impunity laws that we had been demanding for many years. Nestor Kirchner’s political will was necessary for parliament to annul the impunity laws. What we should take away from this is that Argentina is the only country in the world that has been able to prosecute people who committed crimes against humanity through the common justice system. The Nuremburg and the Tokyo War Crime Trials were ad hoc tribunals formed to judge these crimes. And we’ve also been able to keep these cases from passing through the military justice system. That’s why I say that there were considerable advances even though we continue to work to enhance them. The other question is about how and from where we approach human rights, because there is an ideological reduction related to what I call olvidos intencionados (intentional forgetting). Human rights are addressed as far as they relate to the dictatorship, but there is no reference made to the previous and subsequent periods. This reductionism is about more than, and goes beyond ,legal impunity.
– What are the main human rights violations in Latin America today?
– For example, environmental issues, everything related to mega mining, monoculture farming of eucalyptus and soy that affect peasants and indigenous people and also impact poverty and hunger issues generally. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recently reported that 35 thousand children die of hunger each day across the world. The loss of resources like water and biodiversity caused by mining and monoculture farming is very much related to hunger and malnutrition. I think that agrochemicals, cyanide and mercury contamination, to give two examples, are violations of human rights.
In the reductionist vision it’s very uncommon to see a focus on the rights of a people, not just on individuals but on communities, peasants, indigenous people, the inhabitants of a city, when they are confronted with the impact of the contamination of what they eat, drink and breathe. Generally speaking, governments prioritize financial capital over peoples’ lives. They don’t differentiate between a productive economy and one that is speculative and virtual. How can it be that in the stock market everything revolves around the rising and falling of prices? That’s not a real economy because there’s no work or production there. That economy is not interested in damages because it doesn’t depend on what is produced or consumed. I’m not against mining, but I am against any destructive activity. Oscar Wilde said that there are those who know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Price and value aren’t the same. And what’s missing here is that certain things aren’t given a value.
– Some people would say that has to do with politics and economics, not with human rights.
– I was in the United Nations World Summit in Vienna in 1993. One of the proposals that the General Assembly took up referred to the third generation of human rights. That means things like the environment, development and self-determination. This third generation was included to complete the full range of human rights policies in our society.
– Beyond some resolutions like article 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO), this isn’t being respected anywhere in the world.
– Not only is it not being respected, but the opposite is being done. Native land is being destroyed to plant soy or eucalyptus, to use just two examples, and this is causing the desertification of the planet. Gold is extracted, leaving environmental liabilities and contaminated water sources. Millions of liters of water are polluted with mercury and cyanide. That is contamination that will last for generations. This means we must change the concept of development, it can’t be synonymous with the exploitation of nature or of people. If the idea is to live like they do in the developed countries, we’ve been backed into a corner.
– The movement for human rights in Latin America was successful in sentencing and punishing those who tortured, disappeared and committed crimes against humanity. Nevertheless, it isn’t successful in areas related to the third generation of rights.
– Many human rights organizations have concentrated on the era of the dictatorships, maybe because they are direct family members of the victims, but they’ve remained fixated on this objective. I respect them very much, and I don’t criticize them, but when one sees the consequences of the devastation and the poverty of millions in the world in the name of robbing natural resources, then it becomes necessary to think a little more. We are suffering through an economic genocide for the sake of obtaining gold, diamonds, oil, at the very same moment when technological breakthroughs have allowed us the ability to eliminate worldwide hunger. Haiti’s situation is a good example. I’ve travelled many times to the island, and one sees a situation of total and atrocious misery, extreme poverty in the greater part of the population. There are no forests any more, nature has been destroyed. But there are thousands of soldiers there who don’t resolve anything.
– Still, nowhere in the world have people been able to put alternatives into practice that are capable of combating these tendencies. Even worse, in Europe, which was the region of the world with the least inequality, the social welfare state is being taken apart. How are we to proceed when even countries that defend the idea of Buen Vivir (living well) like Bolivia and Venezuela, are taking part in mining?
– The first thing we must do is overcome the monocultivo de las mentes (monoculture mentality) that quashes us and degrades us. If not, we will be repeating the same mechanisms because we arrive at the fact that governments like those of Evo and Correa aren’t finding alternatives for their own people. Actually, and this is the second problem, countries have lost sovereignty, and you’ll find that the most important policies are the ones imposed by big multinational corporations that have a colossal concentration of power and the capacity to impose decisions on governments. In Argentina, mega mining is taking 97 per cent of resources and leaving just three per cent for the rest of the country. Whose reaping the benefits of mining? Because in addition to the environmental damage, small and medium-sized producers are hurt because their products are going to return less profit.
– But the monoculture farming that you’re denouncing is not just focused on people in the government but on the populations that wish to consume. I mean to say that as long as we’re prisoners of a culture that measures everything via property, there are not many ways out of the dilemma you’re describing.
– There are some possibilities, there are practices like organic farming, recovered factories and a ton of experiences related to the rational use of water and energy that still haven’t acquired a political weight so as to influence the design of a new society. Yes, it’s true, we’re still far from coming up with an alternative. Universities have a great responsibility in this, but a good part of their students aspire to work for multinationals.
– You started teaching before the dictatorship and then you went back when it was over. Now you’re a social sciences professor at the University of Buenos Aires. What is your impression of the current generation if you compare it to the one you knew before the dictatorship?
– It’s very different. They question things more, they’re more critical.
– A lot of people have the opposite impression, in the sense that young people used to be more critical and committed.
– In the sixties and seventies young people had more of an ideological framework regarding processes of liberation, the class struggle, they had a very rational discourse, but there were many cafe table revolutionaries who would not take that with them when they left the bar. I see the youth of today as more analytical, more critical.
– What do you mean by that? Are you saying that because a good part of folks from the sixties are in the government now?
– No, not at all. I think that science and technology brought about changes in thought, in societies, in humanity in general. We can observe an acceleration of mechanical time that contradicts the natural time in which people have always lived as well as our human rhythms. It’s partly due to this acceleration that we’re living an informational impact which impedes thought or makes the process of thought, which is always reflective, more difficult. I’m talking about information saturation.
– Some neurologists posit that the mind doesn’t think with information, but rather with ideas.
– Exactly. That’s why it’s important to make time for reflection in order for critical consciousness to develop. This has led to changing perceptions of the world and this is the purpose of thought, something that is not so obvious anymore. Reflection implies certain rhythms and these rhythms have changed in a radical way. If the computer takes three seconds more than usual to open a page, that’s a big drama. Human relationships tend to be dominated by these ways of experiencing time. Consequently, reflection and contemplation don’t have the time and space they have had in the history of humanity.
– But you’ve said that the youth of today is more critical.
– While it may seem strange or contradictory, critical attitudes and dissatisfaction come about with incredible rapidity, almost immediately. Young people today, unlike the university students of the past, don’t know what’s going to happen to them tomorrow, they live with a great deal of uncertainty, they know that only a small majority among them has a future and they live in the most absolute professional and existential precariousness. It’s unclear what their place in the world is or will be. And they question their teachers in a very natural way. Sometimes they ask very serious questions. Are the dictatorships over in Latin America? Depending on the perspective that you take, the question is absolutely legitimate. With the excuse of drug trafficking, armies are on the streets again in Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, Colombia.
– What are you observing regionally in Latin American?
– The most important thing is that there aren’t static societies any more, but rapid and profound processes of change. Before, dynasties lasted for centuries, now everything is about change. It’s part of the temporal acceleration we talked about. In Latin America, there is an interesting situation, there is autonomous thought, there is the construction of regional unity that has contributed to avoiding military coups like in Ecuador. All around the world regional blocs are getting stronger and we’re doing the same thing here, because it’s the only way we can hope to eventually stop being a back patio. It’s crucial to limit multinationals. That’s very difficult and always fails, as we saw in the United States when the government wanted to limit the power of Wall Street.
– Are we coming into a new cycle of struggle, now against mining and in the defense of common goods like water?
– That’s where our lives are going, into the defense of these common goods. In years past, the dictatorship threatened our lives, but now life depends on the right of people to decide how they want to live and what they’re going to do with non-renewable resources. That’s why the first ones to react were the peasants and the indigenous people, and also women. I’m convinced that the silent struggle of women is leading them to take positions in all areas, in science, politics, in participation on any level. The women’s movement is really fascinating because besides all their potential it implies another way of thinking. Women and indigenous people are emerging in the terrain of cultural identities. They are the signs of hope that we have, because domination begins with culture and these sectors are the ones that offer a different way of looking at the world.
– You’re an optimist.
– Very much so. As I said, I believe in young people, in the enormous number of girls and boys who work and who study at night to make a way for themselves, to search for their path. They’re the force that can change this.
– You’re almost 80 and have given almost 60 to this cause. Do you ever feel hopeless when you think about all that’s left to do?
– I chose a way to live, no one chose this life for me. I’m austere, I spend little even though I travel a lot. I’m not interested in doing anything else. We’ve lived through difficult things, but I feel very satisfied to have done something so that many people can reclaim hope and the sense of their own identities, these things are part of the path to liberation. Human rights are not an aspirin to calm the pain of the other, they are a path to collective and personal freedom, because no one can be happy alone.
Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for the weekly Brecha of Montevideo, professor and researcher on social movements in the Multiversidad Franciscana of Latin America, and advisor to several grassroots organizations. He writes the monthly “Zibechi Report” for the CIP Americas Program www.americas.org.