by Martina Rodriguez (Birkbeck student and member of the Argentina Solidarity Campaign)
The violence unleashed throughout Latin America and the serious violations of human rights committed by authoritarian regimes in the region during the 1960s and 70s (continuing into the 80s), led Adolfo Pérez Esquivel to assume commitments with Christian groups and movements on the continent. He was appointed general coordinator of the Peace and Justice Service for Latin America (SERPAJ) in Colombia in 1974. The organization was composed of groups working for the liberation of the poor through non-violent means and ecumenically encompassed the religious, secular, peasants, indigenous people, popular sectors, grassroots organizations and intellectuals. They shared concerns about the political situation in their countries and sought to articulate common actions and policies in the face of violence and oppression, while generating alternatives and responses within increasingly restricted spaces.
Military dictatorships, including several bureaucratic authoritarianisms were established in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay. Under these regimes, kidnapping, genocide and – what Nora Cortiñas of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo Founding Line recently described at a talk at ILAS as “the crime of crimes” – the forced disappearance of people increased. Within this historical context, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, together with Dr Hildegard Goss-Mayr, of the International Reconciliation Movement, was arrested and imprisoned by the Brazilian military police at São Paolo airport in 1975. He was imprisoned once again in 1976 in Ecuador, together with Latin American and North American bishops.
During the military coup of Jorge Rafael Videla in Argentina in 1976, and the subsequent systematic repression which included the dictatorship’s “disappearance” of over 30,000 people and the torture of thousands more, Pérez Esquivel contributed to the formation and financing of links between popular organizations to defend human rights and support the relatives of the victims of the dictatorship. The “Peace and Justice Service”, which he co-founded, served as an instrument for the defence of human rights by promoting an international campaign to highlight the atrocities committed by the military regime. In 1975, Pérez Esquivel participated in the foundation of the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights and the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights. He also collaborated in the foundation of human rights organizations on behalf of the relatives of the victims of the repression such as the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, the Grandmothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and Relatives of those Detained and Disappeared for Political Reasons. Adolfo often risked victimization by the dictatorship. In 1977 he was detained, tortured and held without trial for 14 months. His defence of human rights was recognized internationally when he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980 which was widely considered a rebuke to the military junta and may have contributed to its destabilization. Accepting the prize “in the name of the poorest and smallest of my brothers and sisters,” he donated the prize money to charity.
Adolfo has remained active in campaigning on human rights issues across the region. He passionately defended Panama against the US invasion of 1989/1990 and travelled on the Peace Boat to Nicaragua in 1984 in defence of the Sandinista Revolution. He rallied for peace during the civil war in El Salvador and, in February 1995, joined a peace mission to help end the war between Peru and Ecuador. Despite his 87 years, he continues his political engagement against injustice in Latin America and is concerned that democracy is at stake in several countries. He has, for instance, warned Brazilian Senators against conducting a veiled coup d’etat in Brazil to remove President Dilma Rousseff, denounced “soft coups” in Honduras and Paraguay, and condemned assassinations of trade unionists and indigenous populations in Colombia. He has fought hard to bring the world’s attention to the increasingly volatile situation in Mexico, where the murder of journalists and disappearances of activists has become commonplace. He has, in particular, demanded truth and justice for the 43 disappeared students of Ayotzinapa who were taken in September 2014. Perhaps more controversially, while some in the human rights community have condemned President Maduro in equal measure as the Venezuelan opposition for stoking violence and human rights abuses, Perez Esquivel has expressed solidarity with Maduro’s government against the attempts to destabilise it by United States-inspired interventionism.
Meanwhile back in his home country, Argentina, Adolfo has routinely criticized the current government of President Mauricio Marci (December 2015-). He has spoken out against the recent repression against the Mapuche community in Villa Mascardi, Bariloche and the death of a 22-year-old Mapuche youth, Rafael Nahuel, from a bullet of a type used by an elite police unit. Peréz Esquivel has also been at the forefront of the campaign for justice for Santiago Maldonado, a young man who had been present at a protest in Cushamen, Esquel and whose body was discovered in a nearby river 78 days later. This brought the attention of the United Nations Committee Against Enforced Disappearances, which continues to call for “an exhaustive and independent investigation of the circumstances of Mr. Santiago Maldonado’s disappearance”.
Recently commenting Adolfo explained: “The State has a monopoly on the use of force, and the current government uses it to repress its own citizens whose rights are being violated. Instead of being at the service of the people, therefore, the Argentinians’ elected government is acting against its own people.”
Adolfo will be in dialogue with Beverly Keene, Director of Diálogo 2000 – Jubileo Sur Argentina, an NGO that campaigns against illegitimate debts in the Global South. They will both speak on a tour on “The Struggle for Human Rights in Latin America Today” organised by London-based group Argentina Solidarity Campaign, supported by PeaceJam UK, which will cover many of the issues mentioned above. Their talk at the Institute of Latin American Studies and the Human Rights Consortium, Beveridge Hall, Senate House, University of London, Malet Street WC1E 7HU will take place at 6pm on Monday 5th February 2018. Entry is free, but tickets must be reserved beforehand here.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the position of ILAS or the School of Advanced Study, University of London.
Martina Rodriguez is a student at Birkbeck, University of London and member of the Argentina Solidarity Campaign