Interview with Adolfo Perez Esquivel: The Differences

At 74 he still acts as chairperson for Serpaj (Peace and Justice Service) and The Memory Commission of the Province of Buenos Aires.  There he compiled over 4,500 cases of torture in jails and police commissions that have occurred over the last 5 years. 

Nevertheless, he points out that the struggle for human rights today doesn’t have to limit itself to only these type of denouncements.  It ought to include economic, social, cultural and environmental rights.  For this reason he criticizes paying the foreign debt back to the IMF. 

"It is illegitimate," he says, and adds, "With this money we would have been able to construct homes, generate work and end corporate welfare."

In this interview he compares the provinces with the feudal states of the middle ages and offers his perspective on the government.  He talks about the conflict that un-knitted the human rights organizations, the act of March 24, and the left, about Cromañon, the value of words, and the limits of criticism.   

"The solution," he says, "is participative democracy.  This is what the politicians don’t want to implement because they fear the people." 

According to his diploma he graduated as an architect, but if you sum up his career you have to define him as an artist.  But he transcended borders with his militant pacifism.  After getting together with a group of Mahatma Gandhi’s followers Adolfo Perez Esquivel founded Serpaj in Latin America before the Argentinean government had drawn their rifles.  When the military made itself proprietor of life and death they jailed him for 2 years, and at other times he was free, but under vigilance.  A little later, in 1980, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for having made international denouncements of the horror the country had lived in. 

In his austere study, where the diploma from the Swedish foundation hangs between a Ricardo Carpani picture, and another one of his own making, the conversation with La Vaca went like this: 

Q: What should the agenda of Human Rights Organizations be 30 years after the coup? 

A: Thirty years later we have to aim for human rights in their entirety.  We don’t only stay on torture, murder, the disappearance of people, exiles, etc.  When we say entirety we’re talking about advances along the same lines as the thinking in the UN.  It’s called the Second Generation, the economic, social, and cultural rights.  For us, human rights are being violated when children die of hunger and preventable illnesses, when the rights to health, education and work don’t exist.  In all these cases the State has a responsibility.  There is a Third Generation, which has to do with the people’s right to self-determination, the right to sovereignty and to the environment, to development.  The UN included those rights in ’93 in the summit we had in Vienna, Austria.  I refer to all these things with the term ‘entirety of human rights’ 

Q: Argentinean human rights groups have rallied to this new agenda? 

A: The agenda isn’t the same for every organization.  We are an international organization..  Serpaj does work in the whole continent and in Europe too.  There are other organizations that arose here.  They were created by victims and families, like the Ex Detained and Disappeared.  Others arose in ’75 like the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, and the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights.  Each one has interests.  Many times the interests are in common, other times they are particular to each organization.  In Serpaj we work with indigenous people, campesinos (peasant farmers), popular organizations and young people.  We’re very distinct from other organizations, like the Center for Legal and Social Studies, for example, who do legal work and advance legal cases. 

All of us identify with the search for truth and justice, the saying "no" to yesterday’s and today’s impunity, and the importance of human rights.  And in some cases we connect, we have a good dialog. 

Q: In your judgment, which human rights does the Argentinean state violate today? 

A: Regrettably, there are many.  Separate from Serpaj, I’m president of the Memory Commission of the Province of Buenos Aires.  Together with the attorney general, Hugo Canon,  we formed a committee against torture.  From 2000 up until now we have registered over 4,500 cares of torture in police commissions and jails.  We talked with the province’s Supreme Court of Justice, with whom we have a very good relationship, and have asked all the judges to inform the committee of any cases of torture.  Of all the Buenos Aires judges, only 30% responded, from the rest, no news.  There are judges that aren’t interested.  They aren’t even going to visit the prisoners. 

Q: So there are things that continue the same as 30 years ago? 

A: This is a grave violation of human rights, we talked about it with the governor, Felipe Sola , and with the Ministry of Justice.  Its not that it’s a deliberate policy of the state, but rather a remnant of the structure acquired during the dictatorship, and even earlier, that hasn’t been laid aside.  There are other violations of human rights too.  Often they talk about the Capitol, but the provinces are full of terror, they systematically violate human rights.  This isn’t a federal country it’s a feudal country. 

Q: Can you give some concrete examples of what you’re referring to? 

A: To the majority of the provinces.  Basically Salta, Formaosa, Jujuy, Tucuman, San Luis …. A very concrete point:  They take the land from the campesinos and indigenous people and put it in the hands of foreigners.  They sell it to big transnational companies that cut down the forests to plant transgenic soy.  This is the case in Salta, but it occurs in Patagonia too, with the gold mines.  And in Esquel, in Tucuman, and in Jujuy too they take the land from the campesinos to sell it.  And we haven’t talked about the jails in the interior. 

In the Memory Commission we have made a proposal to the ministry of Justice, to create a committee against torture at the national level.  To supervise the jails and police commissions and keep restraints on the situation, on the things that are systematic, like what’s happening in Mendoza and Chaco. 

Today the jails are human storage facilities; they’re not for readapting and educating the inmates.  These people made a mistake, they are completing a sentence; this is their repayment to society.  But they have to leave with dignity, not worse than they enter.   

The same occurs with children.  We hope to escape the Law of Childhood once and for all.  To end the patronage.  The judges take possession of the kids, they send them to an institute and their lives are ruined forever.  With this new Children’s Law, instead of being objects they’d be recognized as subjects of the law.  They’d have the possibility of a defense.  Today they have nothing.  When one speaks about the children one really has to see the social, cultural and political situation in the country.  The degradation that the country has fallen into through lack of resources is terrible.  And, nevertheless, they continue paying the foreign debt. 

Q: You’ve said you’re against paying the IMF.  Why? 

A: The debt is immoral and illegitimate.  The dictatorship transferred private debt to the state.  The people who did it were the Central Bank’s president at that time, Domingo Cavallo, and ultimately the minister Carlos Menem.  The same people that told us that the policy of agreements and privatizations was the thing that was going to resolve the country’s problems.  They sold everything except for three things, the dog, the cat and the parrot.  Its less bad now that the government is renationalizing water, we hope that they don’t privatize it again. 

Q: Returning to the subject of the debt,  the government announced the payments arguing that it was a way of recuperating political independence. 

A: That’s not for sure.  This is a political hit.  The payments don’t benefit the country in any way,  We  propose that the debt be sent to the international courts in the Hague in order to determine what is legitimate and what is illegitimate.  Ford, IBM, Chess Manhattan Bank, and Mercedes Benz passed their debts on to the Argentinean state: we’re all crazy.  The day after the coup the daily newspaper Clarin had the head line (He unfolds a paper that contains that morning’s cover) "Videla assumes the Presidency on Monday."  And below they published, "US recognizes the junta, credit from the IMF" 

Clearer? Impossible! First, they didn’t say it was a military coup.  Later it was clear that the US’s recognition of the junta was immediate, and the credit was too.  We began a legal action against the IMF in the Comodoro Py last September.  We accuse it of being an accomplice of the dictatorship.  It was what fed it. 

Q: How is this case going? 

A: A few days before the 24 of March they called us from the tribunal in order for us to ratify the denouncements, which we did. 

Q: You’ve just mentioned a list of businesses that benefited from the dictatorship.  It is another one of the subjects that continue being taboo even though time passes.

A: They have total and complete impunity.  Once the magazine "El Periodista" published it, many years ago.  But there are businesses, like Ledesma, in Jujuy that even had trucks, with drivers, in order to kidnap indigenous workers.  One of the Jujuy mothers, Olga Aredes, dies last year of lung cancer from the contamination that business made.   

The case of the debt is very grave.  The judgment of the case made by Alejandro Olmos took 18 years  and the judge, Jorge Ballesteros couldn’t convict anybody.  The judge sent the case to parliament and he told them to investigate, because the debt had done the country deep damage.  Five years have passed already and the delegates and senators haven’t been capable of carrying out a hearing.   

The foreign debt violates the human rights of all Argentineans.  I can’t agree with paying it.  I applaud some things about this government but we have a constructively critical position on other things. 

Q: Can you describe in detail which things you agree with and which you don’t? 

A: Like I said, in no way am I in agreement with paying the debt.  First they have to make a hearing in order to determine the responsible parties.  Then they have to carry that to the international court in the Hague to make clear that we aren’t debtors, but rather claimants of everything these businesses took from us.  Right now we’re paying with the people’s hunger. 

To me it seems very good that this government has declared the due obedience and the final point null.  Also the reform of the Supreme Court of Justice.  They’re steps this government has made, that the previous governments didn’t want to do. 

Now that’s good.  What’s lacking? If they continue paying the debt in place of investing these resources in programs of development, those funds leave the country.  All the money that is paid to the IMF could have built homes, generated sources of work, and ended corporate welfare.  More so, the country lacks a national project.  The provinces are feudal domains, and at the same time they’re part of the same government.  They are the government’s political allies. 

Therefore, how do we fix this problem?  It’s necessary to begin rethinking what sort of democracy we want.  It’s necessary to pass from a delegative democracy to a participative one.  The constitutional reform in ’94 determines that the people have the right to a plebiscite, and popular consultations.  But they never put it into ordinance, and I know why. 

Q: Why? 

A: Because they’re scared of the people.  If they approve it the people could organize and repeal their decrees.  These politicians are hanging on to power with their teeth and nails.  They don’t have the courage to make the law.  One asks what kind of democracy we live in, what does it serve? 

Q: And you’ve found answers to these questions? 

A: There are such things as formal democracies.  This government isn’t a revolutionary government, it includes conservative characteristics, in the economy as in the social process.  This government has difficulties, but you have to acknowledge that it has tried to recuperate certain behavioral standards for institutions of the state that were completely disjointed before.  If this government gets the institutions of the state functioning correctly, so they’re not lairs of the corrupt, it would be a great revolution. 

The people have the right to a great participative democracy through plebiscites, popular consultations, and the ability to observe what their ministers, governors, and municipal functionaries are doing.  The people don’t have to delegate the decision making power, but instead supervise the decision making power they give to those who govern. 

But the political corporation is scared.  I don’t know why Menem is a senator today, when he should have to be a defendant. This government advances with difficulty.  We hope that it corrects the things that aren’t good.  We don’t want to crumble it, because if we do that we crumble the country.  We’ve already seen that with Fernando De la Rua, and with Raul Alfonsin. 

Q: Are you one of the people who think that it’s necessary to point out the errors to not crumble, or one of the people that say to criticize the government is to act on behalf of the right? 

A: There are many things that this government should do.  But to criticize for criticism’s sake doesn’t work.  I speak of a constructive criticism.  Often they can’t do things when they want, but when it’s possible.  Sometimes they can, sometimes it’s necessary to wait and make the sociopolitical conditions necessary in order to do it.  It’s not so easy.  You can’t recuperate in a short time all the things you can destroy in a few years.  Argentina has more than 10 million people in poverty, children die of hunger and preventable illnesses.  But I believe that the deepest damage lies in the fracture in philosophy, values, culture, and solidarity.  Today they reunite 2 Argentinas and make three political parties. 

Q: In this sentiment how do you analyze what happened on March 24th? 

A: The act worked very well.  It got a great mobilization at a national and international level.  There were marches in Italy, France, Belgium, Germany and Spain.  Now, what happened?  It costs me lot to make a criticism of  my companions ( fellows).  The march was spectacular; it was the result of many years of educational, informative work, of social construction.  It was a mass of people let loose with their kids.  There were people of all ages and social conditions.  It was spectacular. 

But I believe there are moments for everything.  It was dimmed at the last moment with an extremely weak document that was aimed solely at criticism, and didn’t put value on anything.  One should acknowledge what has been done well.  Kirchner’s government isn’t the same as the military dictatorship.  Kirchner doesn’t commit genocide. 

Q: But why did you express annoyance during the march if all the organizations knew about the document previously? 

A: They sent me the document a day before.  I made reservations.  It’s certain that they retired three paragraphs that I debated. But on reading everything the document contained, in Serpaj we said we weren’t signing it. It was a pamphlet more than a document. 

Q: This document differed greatly from the previous year’s agreement? 

A: They always are the same, more or less. 

Q: The thing that changed then, is the relationship between some organizations and the government.              

A: It’s not a creative document.  This government isn’t the same as other governments.  If they only make criticisms, and propose nothing for political, social and cultural construction they don’t support anything.  Now, if the people who read the document had clarified that it wasn’t approved by such and such organization, they would have avoided a great deal of turmoil.  Afterwards, "Mothers and Grandmothers"  had to ask for the microphone to clarify things.  I was at the foot of the scene beside a heap of drunk people, and it turned over the cheap wine I had inside. 

Q: These people were there at the front accidentally? 

A: In Plaza de Mayo, in those moments nobody was there casually.  Its certain that the government wished to capitalize on the act of the 24th.  But us, we established very clearly that there were popular organizations who had to decide who had to speak, what they were going to say, and how they were going to say it.  The organizations that are addicted to the government respected the agreements.  In one moment they made their actions, and when it was the moment they had to retire, they did.  I spoke several times with Humberto Tumini to organize the affair.  The government wished to mount a stage with Hebe Bonafini and Estela Carlotto.  Who are, according to them, the most representative people in terms of Human Rights.  They invited me to share the stage.  I said no, that I wasn’t going to go up, that I was going to stay with the people.  We said to the government that there were social organizations that ought to say how the action was going to be. 

Q: Human Rights organizations have never collided so strongly before, publicly. What happened with this government that they faced each other in such a visceral manner? 

A: I don’t believe it could be in the interests of this government.  I have more than 40 years of activism, everyone is responsible for their actions.  I can have differences with Hebe Bonafini, but I respect her, and I love her.  She is a person with fierce courage, she always was very coherent.  No-one could accuse her of being negligent.  And she believes that this government did what other governments didn’t want to do.  It’s a valid decision.  The "Grandmothers" decided to give support, they think that this government is different.  We think that if they are good, we support some things.  We maintain autonomy in order to say "this, we don’t like" and give support.  We believe that the only way to maintain credibility is to maintain independence.  From any government, not just this one.  We said to Alfonsin that we weren’t going to integrate CONADEP  because I said we had to send everything to the federal justice.  As he did not accept this I did not participate in the commission.  Everyone has to take decisions in life, and none of them are free.  We have to deepen the dialog and see how to continue building instead of dividing organizations…I believe that the left has to learn how to build, not just to criticize. 

Q: I suppose that you won’t speak, like the ministry of the interior, of the "left side of the left". 

A: That comes from the mouth of Anial Fernandez.  Its necessary to repulse these things that don’t help anyone and use language that implies a withdrawal.  But it is true  that the left isn’t growing politically, elections demonstrate that.  With a bit more propositive document it would have been different.  A document like that they can’t throw together a day before, one thinks it is a manipulation. 

Q: But you said they had time to make modifications. 

A: That is certain, they got rid of paragraphs that I marked.  I am thankful that they took that into account.  But in the train, when it came, I was reading the document, remarking everything, I was supporting nothing.  It was a pamphlet. In that way I am in agreement with many things that it says, but not with everything, nor in the form of development. 

Q: What are the concrete differences? 

A: We came saying that they need social policies.  We developed campaigns against Argentinean troops in Haiti, we had decided about Las Heras.  But not to talk of Iraq, Afganistan, or Fallujah.  What are we doing? Why did we come to the Plaza?  We are talking about 30 years, the 30,000 disappeared and dead, the grave social and political situation, the inheritance from the dictatorship.  The motto said "No to the impunity of yesterday and today".  They needed to be very careful with the elaboration of the document.  I am always careful with words because with a word you can love, and you can destroy too.  Words are energy and this document wastes energy.  The only thing it contributed was quarrels.  This big mess overshadowed the magnificence of the march, and that I applaud all the people that worked on it. 

Q: Why did the organizations decide to eliminate the request for justice for Cromañon? 

A: There were organizations that weren’t in agreement because of the context.  We were in the middle of a judgment of/from Anibal Ibarra.  This was a discussion.  Why Cromañon, and not AMIA, or the Israeli embassy? Or the campesinos of MOCASE, that they ground to sticks in Santiago del Estero?  If you mention one you have to mention all the country’s problems.  The central problem is where we need to point on the document.  Its not that Cromañon doesn’t interest us, it pains all the people. 

Q: But why did some human rights organizations resist incorporating it in their agenda? 

A: It’s always a game of words.  They talk about the "massacre of Cromañon".  For me it was a tragedy.  It wasn’t a massacre, they didn’t intentionally kill 194 kids.  They say that there, there is a genocide of hunger too.  There is a problem with malnutrition, with hunger, but genocide is another thing.  They bastardize words.  When you say something, you have to say it with foundation. 

Q: An argument could be held that there is a responsibility of the state when it is corruption that permits the opening of an unsafe nightclub that leads to the death of 194 people. 

A: For this I say, it is necessary to recuperate functions of the organizations of the state.  Look at the force that Leon Arslanian in Buenos Aires province to get rid of police bribes, and nevertheless, hasn’t achieved eradication of the problem.  In the case of Cromañon, Ibarra has sanctioned a heap of municipal inspectors.  I say another thing: What happens with the unions, when they want to get rid of someone they say "you can’t touch anybody" 

Q: Some people come from the other direction and say that thanks to these police, and to these corrupt inspectors the political corporation sustains itself. 

A: The only way to end this is with participative democracy.  The people become in control of those who are in those positions.  And if not, they delegate the decision making power to them.  I always say that the day after we vote we are totally defenseless. 

This article was originally published in and appears here with permission from the editor.