Building Society in the Face of
By Adolfo Pérez Esquivel
Remarks from the Second Annual
Dr. Pérez Esquivel was introduced by the Reverend William L. Wipfler, former Director of the Human Rights Office of the National Council of Churches.
William L Wipfler: Introductory Remarks
The 1970s was a decade when a wave of military coups established violent and repressive “National Security States” in almost every country in South and Central America. It was at the beginning of this period that a young, energetic, idealistic Argentinean artist and architect came to visit me in the Latin America Office at the National Council of Churches. He was seeking support for a rather new liberation movement in Latin America based on “militant nonviolence.” Those were my militant revolutionary years and I wasn’t persuaded about their chances of success in the face of the growing terror exercised by the Latin American military regimes. I do confess, however, that I was convinced that if anyone could help bring about it would be this young man, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.
Raised as a devout Roman Catholic, Adolfo sought to apply the teachings of the Gospel to his contemporary situation. He was committed to the common people, to the poor and oppressed. The grassroots movement to which he gave his efforts cut across the spectrum of society, enlisting clergy and lay people, peasant and indigenous groups, popular organizations and intellectuals, excluding only the oppressors. Eventually, part if that movement formally became Servicio Paz y Justicia (The Peace and Justice Service, or SERPAJ) and in 1974, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel became its General Coordinator.
The leadership of Adolfo and the activities of the Peace and Justice Service in the defense of human rights resulted in strong reactions and the repression of SERPAJ in many places. In 1975, Adolfo was detained in Brazil and only released after considerable mistreatment. The following year he was detained in Ecuador and expelled from the country. But it was in 1977 that he suffered the most severe punishment for the cause of justice. In April he was detained in Buenos Aires without due process, imprisoned, tortured frequently, and left incarcerated at the discretion of the Military Executive Power. He continued in this situation for fourteen months as one of Amnesty International’s “Prisoners of Conscience.” As a result of increased international pressure, his nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize, and protests by the Carter Administration, Perez Esquivel was released from prison in May 1978, but restricted to fourteen months more of conditional liberty. In spite of the threat of renewed repression, Adolfo returned to his work and helped it to expand in Latin America.
In 1980, from among fifty-seven nominees, Pérez Esquivel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. In his accustomed, self-effacing manner, Adolfo accepted this prize “in the name of all Latin American people, and in particular, in the name of the poorest and of those committed to their struggle.” He contributed most of the substantial prize money for assistance to the poor and needy in his continent.
One of the most important consequences of the Nobel Prize was the international attention that it focused on the horrendous human rights situation in Argentina itself. Pérez Esquivel stepped up efforts to demand an accounting for the 20,000 desaparecidos (people who had disappeared at the hands of the government) since the 1976 military coup. In his international travels he consistently denounced the crimes of the Argentine military as well as those of the other repressive governments that afflicted Latin America.
Unlike many Laureates, since becoming a Noble Peace Laureate, Pérez Esquivel has accepted the influence and prestige that this status conveys. He has organized or actively assisted in organizing other Nobel Laureates to address the conflicts and gross violations of human rights around the world. Perez Esquivel has also been tireless in his efforts to promote peace, justice, and self-determination in his own continent. Most recently he has been committed to “The Children’s Peace Village,” which is dedicated to providing support and assistance to disenfranchised children.
In the twenty-five years since I first encountered that young, energetic, idealistic Argentinean who came to my office, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel has become a more mature, continuously energetic, and refreshingly idealistic Global Citizen. He exemplifies the definition of the global citizen expressed by the Center’s founder: a person who “demonstrates a philanthropic spirit that, transcending the narrow bounds of nation, race, and region, regards the whole world as home.” I congratulate the Center for its selection of Adolfo Pérez Esquivel as one of this year’s award recipients.
Adolfo Pérez Esquivel:
We are now facing changes of such an enormous magnitude that, in a sense, all of society finds itself shaken up and confused. Often, we find ourselves unable to react in the face of the enormous speed with which these changes are taking place. We face today an increasing globalization that affects all aspects of our lives. We have to deepen our understanding of what it means and of what its consequences are.
Almost all of us are inhabitants of cities, and therefore the question of the growing urbanization of our societies should be a matter of concern to all of us. Over the past years, I have been struck by a growing phenomenon — people who seem to be losing their own identity and facing tremendous solitude even in the midst of the thousands or the millions of people who are around them. We also see in our cities that people suffer from an increasing level of violence and a growing degree of marginalization. This level of violence constitutes a serious violation of human rights and a very real risk to the survival of our democracies. These cries must be confronted now while there is still time to resolve them.
Population growth is concentrated in the peripheral or marginalized sectors of our cities and our countries. This impoverishment and marginalization is worsening as a result of prevailing economic policies which, as they are applied around the world, are stimulating a return to feudal structures. In many parts of Latin America — an in other continents as well — there is a growing concentration of wealth in a few hands, while an increasing number of people are excluded from society. The rich move into exclusive neighborhoods — often strongly guarded “ghettoes” of their own.
With the globalization of markets, we are experiencing an end to the concept of the welfare state. Governments are no longer committed to ensuring the welfare of their citizens. This is expressed in the cuts to all kinds of social services. Market-oriented policies are leading to a tremendous rise in unemployment throughout the world. Unemployment is one of the most serious problems that our societies must face in the coming years. This problem should indicate to us that the prevailing economic model is in crisis, not only in underdeveloped countries, but in developed countries such as the United States as well.
The emphasis on globalized markets is really a very heavy burden for our societies to carry into the future. In the name of deregulation, our governments have withdrawn from anything having to do with the quality of life of our citizenry. This wave of deregulation which says that we should let the market set the rules, ignores the fact that it is this very same market which has been unable to really foster the development of our societies. It is this same market which has generated a rise in poverty.
My hope here is to highlight some of the trends and developments that will have an enormous impact on our future. By the year 2000, nineteen of the twenty-five largest urban concentrations will be in the poorest areas of the world, and they will contain the poorest, the most excluded, the most marginalized members of society. In these cities we will find the largest proportion of highly contaminating industries; we will see that the waste dumps and waste disposal areas are simply in open air. One of the most severe problems we will face is the lack of potable water. The other thing we will lack is breathable air. Today, more than 600 million people, more than half of the people who live in the Southern Hemisphere, live in slums. In the city of Calcutta alone, there are more than 3,000 slum areas with no adequate sewage, no access to hygiene, no water. If we look at the multitudes who are now concentrating themselves in these urban areas, fleeing from the rural areas or fleeing from wars, we see that there is among them a growing number of illegal immigrants, people in search of better opportunities. To this more traditional movement from the rural areas to the cities, we must also add a new phenomenon — the impoverished middle classes are increasingly leaving the center and going to the peripheries of the cities.
Here I think we have to ask ourselves if the future of humanity really has a horizon of hope. We have to be very creative in the process of building and creating freedom and liberty for everyone. We have to be very creative so that people’s needs can be fulfilled. This will be possible only to the extent that we are able to generate and strengthen grassroots participation in people’s organizations. All of us have an ideal. If we don’t, we must invent one.
What is really being globalized today is poverty. We hope that in the year 2000 there can be a sort of jubilee where the foreign debt can be removed from the shoulders of our people. The foreign debt, or external debt, is unjust and immoral. I call it the “eternal debt.” What we also have to find is a balance in our urban areas, a growth on a human scale that will impede the globalization of poverty and the loss of identity on the part of our peoples.
So far I have portrayed a very grave future. But we also have to focus on the signs of hope that exist. As peoples, we cannot be mere spectators. We have to become the protagonists of our history. As peoples, we have to learn to unite in the building of a culture of solidarity and of hope.
The other point I want to mention is the question of feeding the hungry. The world has the technical capacity to resolve the problem of hunger. What is lacking is political will.
I want to close by mentioning that in the year 1981, 54 Nobel Prize Laureates came together and issued a proclamation against hunger. In it we said that it is necessary for people everywhere to rebel against the kind of pragmatism where people resign themselves to the problems they see around them. If we resign ourselves to the difficulties around us, then we will have lost. If we resist, however, we will be able to change the situation and solve the problems. In order to achieve freedom, we need to have a larger dosage of rebelliousness. If we don’t have the spirit of rebelliousness, we’ll never be able to achieve peace because peace is not something which can be given. Peace is something that must be won, and it will be won only through struggle.
A few days ago in Bueno Aires, I saw some theater, a piece by Beckett, "Waiting for Godot." In it, two beggars wait and wait for Godot, and Godot never arrives. Something very similar to that is happening to us. Many of us are like the two beggars. We’re waiting for something: we’re waiting for something in life. We’re waiting perhaps to achieve something. Perhaps we’re waiting for death or for love. This wait can lead to failure. It can lead to tremendous disillusionment. But if we have hope, hope makes change possible. It makes it possible to think about and to achieve a new world, a more just world, and a more humane world. What will happen depends on what each of us will do. Each of us must decide.
Ikeda Center for Peace, Learning, and Dialogue