Adolfo Pérez Esquivel

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel (born 1931), distinguished as an Argentine artist, became a human rights activist based on Christian pacifism and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980.

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was born in Argentina on November 26, 1931, the son of Spanish immigrants. His mother died when he was a young boy and his father, a coffee salesman, was often away on business. Pérez Esquivel was essentially raised by the nuns and priests who ran the Roman Catholic schools he attended. He has remained a devout Catholic. His pacifistic views are based on his commitment to the message of the Gospels and on his reading of Catholic thinkers such as St. Augustine, a 4th century philosopher, and Thomas Merton, a 20th century American monk. "I believe that one has to listen to the silence of God, what He is asking from each one of us. It's necessary to make a choice. My mission is to carry the message of the Gospel and to live it profoundly with my brothers, " he told America. Interested in art, he graduated from the National School of Fine Arts in Buenos Aires in 1956. In the same year he married Amanda Pérez, a pianist and composer who gave up her career after the couple's three sons were born. Initially uninvolved politically, he became known as a sculptor and art professor. Two themes inspired his art: Indian cultures and motherhood. These preoccupations anticipated his later activism after two developments in the 1960s and 1970s altered his noncontroversial existence.

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Became Involved with Social Justice Programs

One development was the Argentine military's repeated intervention in politics. From the mid-1970s the generals were increasingly committed to extreme repression, which resulted in the "Dirty War" in which thousands of Argentine citizens "disappeared." According to Newsday retired Lt. Commander Adolfo Scilingo was the first Argentine official to admit that more than two thousand political prisoners were stripped, drugged, and thrown into the sea from aircraft under the 1976-83 military dictatorship.

The second development to raise Pérez Esquivel's consciousness was the dedication of a small group of people to peace and human rights, foreshadowing an eventual wave of demands for democracy in the 1980s. The Fellowship of Reconciliation, an interfaith pacifist organization with origins dating to World War I, sent Austrians Jean Goss and Hildegard Goss-Meier to Latin America in 1962 to identify both Catholic and Protestant clergy who might support a nonviolent movement for justice based on Christian principles. Their travels resulted in international pacifist meetings which led to the formation of Service for Peace and Justice. The newly founded group established a small secretariat to coordinate a network of local nonviolent action groups in several countries, including Argentina.

Back home by the early 1970s, Pérez Esquivel had organized a crafts cooperative for a poor urban neighborhood and engaged in a hunger strike to protest escalating violence by both guerrillas and the police. In 1973 he founded Paz y Justicia, a monthly periodical. During the following year Pérez Esquivel began a campaign for solidarity with Indians in Ecuador. It was in Ecuador that he had a religious experience in the form of a dream in which he saw the crucified Christ in an Indian poncho. This inspired his book, Christ in a Poncho, which was published in English in 1983.

Wider travel and confrontation with authorities followed in the next three years. He supported the Agrarian Leagues of Paraguay against persecution and was arrested in Brazil, where he supported workers' complaints. Back in Argentina he founded the Ecumenical Movement for Human Rights, which assisted families of the people who "disappeared, " and he created the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights, which monitored government policy. In 1976 he visited Ecuador again, but was arrested. He then traveled in the United States and Europe. When he sought to renew his passport in April 1977, the Argentine authorities imprisoned him for over a year without any charge and tortured him with cattle prods, electric shocks, and ice cold showers. "During the 32 days I spent in the torture center there were times when the morning light shone on the walls and I could see writings there: names of loved ones, essays, insults, the names of favorite soccer teams. But what impressed me most and something I'll never forget, was a big message written in blood: 'God does not kill.' the life and death, anguish and hope of the people were in that cell, " Pérez Esquivel told the Washington Post in 1984. He added that in moments of hardship he looks for signs. "I am a man of hope, " he said.

Won Nobel Prize

International pressure secured his release from jail, which was followed by house arrest for several months.

Confinement brought recognition: Pax Christi, the Catholic pacifist organization, awarded him the Pope John XXIII Prize; Amnesty International, which worked for the release of political prisoners, adopted him as a prisoner of conscience. In Northern Ireland, Mairead Corrigan and Betty Williams nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. Corrigan and Williams had won the 1976 Nobel Peace Prize for their grassroots effort to bring peace to their beleaguered province.

In October 1980 came the announcement that the little known Pérez Esquivel had been selected over many other nominees for the prize. According to Newsweek the Nobel committee said of Pérez Esquivel: "He is among those Argentines who have shone a light in the darkness. He champions a solution that dispenses with the use of violence. The views he represents carry a vital message to many other countries, not least in Latin America." Argentine media reportage was restrained but, ironically, Argentine law required the government to pay him a lifetime pension. On December 10, Pérez Esquivel accepted the prize in Oslo "in the name of the poorest and smallest of my brothers and sisters." Before 1980 only six Nobel laureates had been Latin American. The Nobel Committee's selection of Pérez Esquivel in 1980 was one important factor in the restoration of civilian rule in Argentina in 1983.

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Continued to Work for Peace and Justice

In the 1980s and 1990s, Pérez Esquivel's pacifist activism took new forms. At home he championed the Mothers of the Plaza, a group who silently protested the "disappearance" of family members. He joined other Nobel laureates who journeyed to Nicaragua in 1984 to deliver humanitarian aid, and to Asia in 1993 to support Burmese democracy advocate Aung San Suu Kyi. In June 1995, along with five other Nobel Peace Prize winners, he wrote to Chinese premier, Li Peng asking for the release of jailed dissident Wei Jingsheng, an advocate of democracy in China.

Pérez Esquivel offered three nonviolent steps to redress injustice: (1) call a specific injustice to the attention of appropriate authorities; (2) if that step fails, appeal to public opinion through such acts as prayer and fasting; (3) if that fails, engage in civil disobedience. He strongly believed that political stability is impossible in Latin America without social justice and the elimination of poverty. In a 1991 article in Le Monde diplomatique, reprinted in World Press Review he lashed out at the budget reducing measures imposed on Latin American countries by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund which resulted in decreased expenditure on health, education, and other antipoverty programs—"It is a policy which has caused the gulf between rich and poor nations to go on widening. A time bomb has begun ticking, and no number of promises or soothing words will defuse it. The governments of the world must come to their senses and construct the new economic order—they must rediscover the virtues of sharing."

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Further Reading on Adolfo Pérez Esquivel

To understand better the context of Pérez Esquivel's work, refer to a standard history of his native land such as Argentina (1987) by David Rock; for sources of his inspiration see Twentieth-Century Pacifism (1970) by Peter Brock and selected entries from Harold Josephson (ed.), Biographical Dictionary of Modern Peace Leaders (1985) and an entry in Nobel Prize Winners, Tyler Wasson (ed.). Pérez Esquivel's own book, Christ in a Poncho, was first published in French in 1981; it recounts stories of pacifist resistance by disadvantaged Latin American groups he supported. For additional glimpses of his philosophy read his op ed piece in the New York Times (March 30, 1985) and the interview in America (December 27, 1980). In 1992 Temple University Press released a translation of Service for Peace and Justice's report on human rights violations in Uruguay, 1972-1985. Paz y Justicia carried a biography of Pérez Esquivel in the October-December 1980 issue. See also Time (October 27, 1980); World Press Review (March 1991).