Adolfo Pérez Esquivel: ‘The day you stop smiling at life, is the day you have been defeated’

The Nobel Peace Prize winner talks to EL PAÍS about the last 40 years of democracy in Argentina and what matters most to him in this regard: the future

Adolfo Perez Esquivel
Nobel Peace Prize winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel photographed at his home in the San Isidro neighborhood of Buenos Aires.Mariana Eliano

Days before turning 92, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel received EL PAÍS at his home north of Buenos Aires to talk about the 40th anniversary of the end of the last military dictatorship in Argentina. As a painter, sculptor, writer, and activist, Pérez Esquivel knew it well. In 1977, while establishing connections among social organizations to defend the victims of military regimes throughout Latin America and leading nonviolent resistance against dictatorships, he was taken prisoner by Jorge Rafael Videla. He was imprisoned and tortured for 14 months, and the Argentine military took him on one of the death flights, from where they threw sedated prisoners into the Río de La Plata. They let Pérez Esquivel go and continued to monitor him for more than a year. In 1980, he received the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting the defense of human rights in project that continues to this day.

Despite everything, Pérez Esquivel is an optimist. On November 22, four days before his birthday, he returned from a trip to Mendoza, Argentina, to participate in a series of conversations at a public university and was preparing to attend the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo roundtable the next day. It was the first after the far-right presidential candidate Javier Milei, who had questioned the horrors of the dictatorship during the campaign, won the elections in the country. “They will have us in the streets,” says Pérez Esquivel, who warns the government that will take office this December 10: “We are going to ask for dialogue and, if we do not agree, we are going to form a resistance. There is no other option.”

Question. What has Argentina as a society achieved in 40 years of democracy?

Answer. In forty years of democracy there have been many lights and shadows, and a democracy is not a gift, it is built. Those responsible for building democracy are the people. In these 40 years we have experienced a lot of anxiety, we are seeing it today: they want to ignore the scope of the fight against the dictatorship, the recovery of the institutions, and the punishment trials for criminals who violated human rights. I do not believe in this representative democracy, in which we vote, and have just voted, and all power passes to a government that does what it wants and not what it must while we have no right to protest.

Q. It sounds as if there has been no achievement.

A. There is no perfect democracy. But every democracy can be perfected, and that depends on the will of the people and that of the governments, which often tend to ignore the will of the people. Today there are authoritarian governments that, although they are part of the democratic structure, do not comply with it. Democracy and human rights must be indivisible values. If one is lost, democracy ceases to exist. Now, among all its tragedies, Argentina had a series of big achievements: education from primary school to university that is free of charge and free from government interference; public health; the scientific research centers, which are not only an honor for the country, but also for the world. The other is the affirmation of the institutions that a country needs: the judicial branch and the legislative branch, which had been destroyed.

Q. What is missing to consolidate that democracy?

A. There is a territorial problem with the native peoples. After the constitutional reform of 1994, instead of becoming a federal country with co-participation, [Argentina] became a feudal country where the governors appropriated the provinces to do business, including selling the forests, expelling the Indigenous communities, and destroying the environment. That is not democracy. The outstanding debts are land, shelter, and work. In Argentina there are dirty words that are never uttered out of fear. One of them is agrarian reform. In this country, the land is in the hands of large companies. How can it be that businessmen like Carlo Benetton, from Italy, have almost a million acres in Patagonia, and take their land from the Mapuche people? And he is not the only one: Joe Lewis, Ted Turner, even the Arab emirs are buying land on the border with Chile. We talk about 40 years of democracy because there were no military coups, but there are other coups. Democracy in Argentina is in intensive care. And it could be worse.

Q. Argentina is a trailblazer for the rest of Latin America in terms of human rights. How did it arrive at this political point?

A. Milei is the result of the failure of political representations. I never belonged to a party. I have my sympathies for Peronism, but I never belonged to a party. Politicians and their projects always aim at current policies and not at long-term construction. There are no objectives, and they are adrift. The situation, of course, must be addressed, but if building the country is not projected in the long term, it is lost. Milei is the result of the frustrations of many things, such as the economic situation after the pandemic, which dismantled many things. The politicians did not make an effort to rebuild after that. Their pride lost them.

Q. The new government is copying the military’s speech about the crimes of the dictatorship while stating that it is an old issue that should not “be reopened.” Do you agree?

A. That is a mistake. People who forget make the same mistakes again. Denialism, like that expressed by Vice President Victoria Villarruel, leads nowhere. When she says that the disappeared are not who they are... Let’s see, it is not a question of numbers, it is a question of humanity, of recognizing the huge massacres that were committed against the people. All the oppressors from the dictatorship were given the right to choose their lawyers and defend themselves. We didn’t have any of that. I am a survivor and they didn’t give me any of that. I was in prison for 14 months and they didn’t even interrogate me, they just beat me.

Q. How do you continue to support peace and dialogue after suffering all that?

A. The day you stop smiling at life, is the day you have been defeated. You must not stop smiling at life. If they tell me that a militant is bitter, he is not a militant. He is just bitter. I don’t believe in just wars. There are no holy wars, either. What I do believe in is the just causes that mobilize us.

Q. You often say that peace is not the opposite of conflict.

A. Peace is not passivity, it is a permanent dynamic of relationships between individuals and peoples. I cannot give anything that I do not have, I cannot share peace with my family, with my neighborhood, with my community, if I am not willing to do that. No one can sow with closed fists. To sow you have to open your hand. But you have to know what seeds to sow. Did you know that transgenic seeds are not fertile seeds? They do not reproduce, so they generate a chain of dependency with large companies, with toxins like glyphosate, too. In Latin America, in places in Brazil like Mandirituba, attempts are made to promote cultivation with organic seeds, and twice a year the farmers — the Indigenous people of the area — arrive and exchange their seeds. Those are the ones that have to be planted, that is cultural resistance. Culture is not just thought, it is everything.

Q. After learning of Milei’s victory, you called for resistance, what does that mean?

A. First, we are going to ask for dialogue. And then we will decide. They are not personal decisions. They are decisions that we have to make in all organizations, and for that we need strategy. Individualism doesn’t work, but they want individualism to get into our heads. What Milei is trying to do is exacerbate individualism. And neoliberalism introduces individualism. The United States is an individualistic society, there are very few organizations that work together. I insist, cultural domination, we have to work a lot on that. The new media is deadly.

Q. How can communities be remade?

A. Education. You can only work in critical education as a practice of freedom. Our defeat is cultural. You know what a monoculture is. There is a monoculture that is much more dangerous than all those that are created through using pesticides. It is the monoculture of minds. Be careful of that. It’s fierce. There are kids who live in small towns, but all they want is to live in the United States. Look at the migrants trying to reach the El Paso border, trying to get there with all their means as if it were manna. A lot of people think that this is the life they want, why? Because they don’t know how to recognize their own place, their land. That is cultural domination.

Q. Is there an answer?

A. We need to work in a more participatory system, where people have tools to defend themselves. If we stay with these 40 years, the truth will out. It cannot be that we vote and do not know what is going to happen to national companies, to education, and health that belong to everyone, nor to the interests maneuvering behind it all without us knowing. No government has had the courage to stop capital being taken out of the country. For now, nothing is being built in the country, and we are left with hunger, misery, and poverty. Another world is possible only if we have the courage to make it possible. Today we don’t have it. Look: let’s talk about political parties. Here, the so-called left learned to divide what is divided; two parties have become three. You can’t build anything like that. Then the right appears, with its international support, and sweeps the elections.

Q. What worries you most about the new government?

A. Everything. If Milei wants to implement his electoral project, his only way is repression. Villarruel wants to end the Site of Memory status of the former Escuela de Mecánica de la Armada prison, which is a UNESCO heritage site. How is she going to do it? And what are we going to do? We are going to ask for dialogue, and if we do not agree, we are going to start a resistance. There is no other option.

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