When a person forgets his own humanity, he loses all reason ’
On April 4, 1977, a slightly built Argentine architect entered Buenos Aires central police headquarters to pick up a renewed passport. There authorities placed Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, “at the disposal of the executive power." For H months he was held without charges and tortured. It wasn't the first time such a thing had happened to him. His rights had been withdrawn several times since 1971, the year Pérez Esquivel, a devout Roman Catholic, joined a Buenos Aires group dedicated to nonviolence and the teachings of Mahatma Gandhi. But this latest incarceration had unexpected results. While in prison, he was nominated
for the Nobel Peace Prize by Betty Williams and Mairead Corrigan, the 1976 winners who had led peace marches in Northern Ireland. Much to its displeasure, th e A rgentine m ilita ry governmen t was flooded with protests including those of leading churchmen from around the world. The award, which the k8-year-old Pérez Esquivel will accept in Oslo next month (edging out Jimmy Carter and Robert Mugabe, among others), has focused world attention on thousands of desaparecidos, persons who disappeared following their detention by security forces.
Despite the Argentine press's efforts to play down the award as an insult to Argentina, it has meant a boost for Pérez Esquivel's own Peace and Justice Service (SEPAJ), an umbrella organization created in 197k for smaller groups working with the poor and politically persecuted throughout Latin America. In Santiago, Chile, Pérez Esquivel spoke to Maclean’s correspondent Mary Helen Spooner.
Maclean’s: Which Latin American countries, in your opinion, have the worst human rights situations?
Pérez Esquivel: There are peaks of seriousness. We are very concerned about the situation in El Salvador, and are in touch with Archbishop Rivera Y Damas [who succeeded murdered Bishop Oscar Romero earlier this year]. The situation is also serious in Guatemala, though slightly less so than in El Salvador — there is a virtual massacre of the peasant population taking place. Maclean’s: What about the South American continent?
Pérez Esquivel: The situation in Bolivia is very sad, for the people held elections and the armed forces failed to respect the people’s decision. I recently met with La Paz Archbishop Jorge Manrique, who described some of the problem» there. And although it is less noticeable, there are also problems in Paraguay, Uruguay and Chile.
A rather generalized situation in Latin America is that our people practically have no options, no choices. Under military regimes people are left behind as mere spectators, rather than as participants in their country’s process. It is necessary to work toward reconquering the rights which justly belong to the people.
Maclean’s: How does your organization, SEPAJ, work toward that end?
Pérez Esquivel: In a way, it is all very similar. Work we do with religious groups, peasant farmers and laborers follows the same line as the gospel: namely, that people recognize themselves as human beings. The gospel provides the root and the options for the poor.
Maclean’s: How does your own philosophy of nonviolence fit into your work? Pérez Esquivel: By nonviolence we mean, in the words of Martin Luther King, the force of love. This does not entail passivity, but means we simply refuse to accept the rules laid down by the enemy, who is eventually confronted by his own methods of repression.
‘We condemn any kind of terrorism. The gospel is clear on this. ’
Maclean’s: You spent over a year in prison and endured considerable illtreatment at the hands of your jailers. How did this experience affect your thinking?
Pérez Esquivel: On a personal level, it was very painful. But on a Christian level it strengthened my faith. If I had not had this faith when I was arrested, I might have emerged embittered. I think that hatred and grudges only bring on self-destruction. And herein lies the force of nonviolence. I came out of prison with a firmer commitment toward building a more just society. Maclean’s: What motivates the officials who are responsible for such abuses? Pérez Esquivel: I do not claim to know very much about what passes through the hearts and minds of those who do such things. But I do know that when a person forgets his own humanity and that of his brother, he forgets God, and thereby loses all reason. But torture is just one aspect of human rights problems, which in turn stem from an institutionalized structure of injustice. We must ask why such situations arise. I think a great deal is due to the lack of policies beneficial to the people of Latin America. There are very small interest groups dominating the continent, and our people suffer hunger and continuous exploitation. This is not to advocate armed struggle, by any means. We as Christians must always be thinking of different alternatives, and the important thing is to attack the causes of injustice. By offering the people new alternatives, they will not be attracted to guerrilla groups and further violence. Maclean’s: Has your award affected your work?
Pérez Esquivel: We are accepting it very humbly in the name of Latin America. How the money will be used will be determined later. We’ll be looking at various projects to see where there is the most need.
Maclean’s: In addition to your work with SEPAJ, you are an architect and a sculptor. Do you have much time for sculpture these days?
Pérez Esquivel: I’ve had to leave sculpting behind for the moment. There simply is not time. One has to assume certain obligations and go on working. Right now I am preparing to go to Chile, and I am going to give a big abrazo [hug] to the Chilean people. We are very concerned about the possibility of war between Chile and Argentina, and such a conflict could spark a continent-wide battle.
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