1980 Nobel Laureate Speaks At U-M
On Monday, March 10, 1986, Nobel Peace Prize laureate Adolfo Pérez Esquivel addressed a standing room only crowd at Hale Auditorium on the campus of the University of Michigan. Esquivel's lecture, "Liberation Theology, Non-Violence and the Struggle for Human Rights", was sponsored by the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts, the Program on Studies in Religion, and the Office ofEthics and Religion.
Recorded by Agenda staff and translated by Alfonso Hernández Lozano.
First of all, I want to say that I am grateful to be able to be here with you this evening and I want to thank the University authorities for making this possible. I think that what is most important, being here with you this evening, is to get to know each other and learn how we can share the same journey . For some time now, I have wanted to visit many of the universities in the U.S., because I feel that it is of extreme importance that we get to know each other and begin to share our experiences. Disinformation, distance and bad information, help to generate many contradictions concerning the realities in our respective countries, help to keep our peoples apart.
I come from a continent that lives between anguish and hope, a continent that has suffered under brutal oppression for a long time, going back to the days of the Spanish Conquest. It is a continent which day after day seeks to reclaim its liberation, its dignity, and we continue on that road. We are trying to find that liberation not as something far off in the distance, but rather it is a liberation that is seen and understood, which we work toward every day. It is a liberation that we must work toward every day with courage and suffering and with the struggles and hopes of our people.
Ours is a continent where in many places, in Spain for example, they talk of celebrating the 500th anniversary of the Conquest, the discovering of the Americas. We hear so much about the discovery of the Americas, but before the Europeans came, there was already many peoples living here. So in reality the Spaniards didn't discover anything. Today, these are the problems that beset us. They have tried to make us believe that they have civilized us, but here there were already civilizations, beautiful civilizations that still exist today, despite ceaseless oppression.
That brings me to the subject I wish to discuss here with you today: The liberation of my people. But first, I want to show you a symbol of these people, which represents all of the peoples of the Latin American continent. I have here a poncho that was given to me a few days ago by the indigenous people of Ecuador from the Chimburazo region. This poncho was weaved with much love and suffering by the women representing a culture and a way of life that invading oppressors have not been able to destroy.
When we speak of liberation, many believe that the struggle for freedom is a recent thing. There is talk of liberation theology. However, if we examine the history of my people, we shall be able to ascertain many things. There were already civilizations which continue to exist today and that maintain their culture, identity and their language. But then the Spaniards, the conquerers who arrived to subjugate our peoples. But they also brought other peoples with them, which they enslaved here in our own continent - the black people of Africa. They robbed them of their liberty and also of their identity, which is why we continue today to struggle to regain the rights of our peoples to freedom, dignity and their right to self-determination.
For me, mere population does not necessarily mean a people. You can have 20 or 30,000 individuals and still not have a people or nation. A people is like a tree which has deep roots embedded in the soil and nurtures itself through its culture, its religion, its art, its language and its spirit. If the roots are firmly in place, there will be a strong tree which will bear good fruit However, for centuries the intent has been to destroy and cut down this tree and this is the situation we are living in today. In spite of all this, the roots remain firm, but we have to recover and strengthen them.
On our continent there is a system of domination. In the last few years there has grown a political tide which seeks to maintain dictatorships throughout the region, which have systematically violated human rights. There exists a mechanism for terror resulting from an ideology of maintaining "national security."
The people, in spite of all this, continue to resist and move forward, giving force to a process of liberation on the continent. This is how it was in Argentina with the struggle against the dictatorship. This is how the people of Uruguay did it, and this is how the people of Chile continue to struggle against the terrible dictatorship of Pinochet.
In Nicaragua, the people also resisted in order to liberate themselves from the oppression of the Somoza regime. But now they are again under attack in what is an effort to once again subjugate and oppress the people of Nicaragua, and for our part, we must continue and demand their right of self-determination. The problems of the Nicaraguan people can be worked out amongst themselves without bosses.
I believe, that to correctly analyze the process of liberation amongst our peoples, we have to look at the situation from the point of view of those , the humble, the poor of the continent, who continue to move forward day after day in their struggle to overcome a system of oppression. There is an ancient tale of the Guaraní people that speaks of the search for a land without evil. That land without evil can also be found in the Old Testament, in Exodus, where people seek out the promised land. We can also find that search going on today in the strength and determination of our people's struggle for their liberation.
These are people that are deeply religious. They are people whose very lives are filled with popular religion. These are people whose every act of life reflects a deep sensitivity towards nature and is at the same time mixed with a religion that was forced upon them, as is the case here with Christianity. But with time these new ideas became incorporated with their own beliefs and way of living as well as their religion.
Today we see how the indigenous people continue to honor the Pacha Mama-the Mother Earth. Before they bury the plow into the earth, first they honor and ask permission of the Mother Earth.
They find strength, a deep spiritual strength, in the simple things of life. And it is because of this strength, this faith, that these people have not been vanquished and instead continue moving forward toward their freedom.
Their struggle for liberation cannot be isolated to an economic problem. Theirs is a liberation which is very much a part of their culture, their politics, their education and their society. It is in this context that we must see the permanent struggles of the campesino, of the indigenous peoples, as their struggle to regain their land, their identity and the lives of their people.
In Latin America the ruling dictatorships manipulated and used religion as a tool of domination. They used religious marks and symbols emptied of their meaning, to deceive the people. It was taught, as part of the ideology of "national security" that all those who were not in agreement with Western civilization and its capitalist partners were communists and subversives. This became a permanent fixture which to this day remains as the pretext used by dictators to murder our people. In Argentina we have 30,000 people who were kidnapped and have disappeared. Children who have been kidnapped and have disappeared. All those who opposed the repressive regime were systematically accused of being communists and subversives. Now that the Nicaraguan people have chosen the path of self-determination, these same threats and dangers have arisen.
I believe that what the people of the U.S. need to understand is that in our continent we do not want to replace one boss with another. We don't want any bosses. We want to be masters of our own destiny and that is why we continue the struggle. I also believe that it is necessary that you understand profoundly the characteristics of the ideology of "national security".
After World War II and after the Yalta accords, the two great world powers divided the world into areas of influence. The people had no say as to which area they belonged to. We were chosen, and we did not want to be chosen.Because of the "national security" ideology, coupled with the politics of "areas of influence" the mechanisms for domination and human rights violations spread throughout the continent
You can see for instance what is taking place in Guatemala. Here there is very little information about the reality facing the Guatemalan people. There is a campaign of genocide and ethnocide being committed against the people of Guatemala in which the military has installed strategic hamlets like those in Vietnam and there are massacres, women are raped and the troops commit acts of cannibalism, eating the hearts of their victims. On this matter, I want to tell you there exists the testimony of many witnesses and also the public denunciations of international organizations, as well as the international world court
The people of Guatemala have a rich and beautiful cultural history that has its roots in antiquity. They know absolutely nothing as to the meaning of communism. What they want most is to live in peace, in dignity and to work the land and raise their children. Still, they continue to be hunted down and massacred.
In Honduras, people are forced to join para-military organizations, the purpose of which is to watch and inform on their own people. Honduras is a country occupied by foreign troops and it is here that the contras have their bases to launch attacks against Nicaragua. The armed forces of the U.S., the C.I.A., and the Salvadoran and Honduran army stand poised in what is an extremely dangerous situation, that can only lead to the "Lebanonization" of Honduras.
In El Salvador, the Salvadoran armed forces are using napalm bombs on the civilian population. The whole country is engulfed in an intense civil war.
When we speak of the problems of the Americas, these are not isolated cases. The case of Nicaragua is not an isolated incident. The question now is what is our answer to all these problems?
Here you have a lot of information, many times not fully correct. I ask that you inform yourselves correctly. Read what the alternative press is saying, read the information put out by the various Church-related organizations, and other investigative commissions. I believe that this is very important because then you will have a much clearer idea about what is taking place in Central America and then you can search out what alternatives should be pursued.
For my part, I am a man dedicated to the struggle of non-violence. Many times non-violence gets confused with passivity, but they have nothing in common. Non-violence is a permanent action of resistance in the face of all kinds of injustice. It is the collective action of a people seeking freedom and their right to self-determination.
In Nicaragua, there is a continuing non-violent struggle. There is a large presence of Christian organizations involved in the revolutionary process. Even now, and I regret that not much has been said about this, Miguel DeEscoto, a priest in the MaryKnoll order is participating in the stations of the cross by the Nicaraguan people, which began in Jalapa on the Honduran border and is continuing all the way to Managua. Seeing all of this, can we still accuse these people of being communists? It is most unusual that if they are communist, the Nicaraguan people are saying the stations of the cross.
Some months ago, I participated with Father Miguel DeEscoto and the many Christian communities - in general, the people of Nicaragua - in a fast for peace in Nicaragua and Central America. It was there that I saw this extraordinary uprising by these strange evangelical "communists." We celebrated the ecumenical festivities. Many U.S. citizens took part, sending a ship of peace to the border with Costa Rica, which was intercepted and held by the contras. There was also a Bishop from Brazil, Don Pedro Casandalis there. It is strange, this Communism. I want you to observe that the actions of these people have a profound religious sentiment. This is because it is an integral part of their daily lives, not something that is separated from life. This is how we come to view the protests and actions of non-violence throughout the Latin American Continent.
Now I ask you, is one a communist for participating in a struggle to gain the peoples' right to self-determination? Are they communists because they want to live in dignity and seek the right to education, to health care and the right to live in peace? Many falsehoods have been raised to justify the continuing aggression. Other peoples must scrutinize closely what is taking place so that they may learn what is really occurring on our continent. All of the dictatorships in Latin America, like that of Argentina, the massacres which they committed were done in the name of Western Christian civilization in the fight against "international communism." This is the logic used to justify and continue the martyrdom of christians throughout the continent. All of this calls for us to look at this situation more closely. But what are we to look for?
There is a concrete proposal for finding a solution to the conflicts which affect Latin America.
First, with respect to Central America, we should give support to the peace plan put forth by the Contadora group of nations, which up until now has been totally blocked by the Reagan administration.
Second, we should recognize the resolutions of the International Court of Justice in the Hague.
Third, instead of sending $100 million dollars to the contras, these funds should be destined not for death and destruction but rather for life and the progress of our peoples. We are not asking for much. However, in reality it is much that we are asking for our right to self-determination.
It is of extreme importance that the problems of Central America be remedied as soon as possible. If not there exists the serious risk that the path of military escalation in that region will transform itself into another Vietnam. If this escalation continues and all of Central America is caught up in this conflict, the rest of the Latin American continent is not going to remain on the sidelines. We have to make sure that the situation does not reach such an extreme and explosive stage.
What we have to do now is for each one of us to transform ourselves into peacemakers. Not a peace that is separated from the struggle, but rather a peace that is born of the right to truth and justice. If there is no justice there will be no peace. Benito Juárez, a Zapotec Indian who became president of Mexico and struggled alongside his people, defined peace in a clear and concrete form. He said "peace is respect for the rights of others." This does not apply only person to person - it also applies to the rights of nations. It applies when we hear the ceaseless cries of other peoples and which grow louder by the day. It applies when we see that we have no recourse to health care, education and the right to life and progress of our peoples. It applies when we see our entire continent being pulled down by an unjust and immoral foreign debt of 380 billion dollars - money which never reached our people. As it is, our peoples are poorer and more miserable than ever. What ever happened to all that money? We will have to ask that question to the people at the International Monetary Fund.
We see a situation where massive amounts of capital were spent on speculative ventures with the help of corrupt dictators who assisted in tunneling these funds out of their respective countries. They have robbed and destroyed our economies. It amounts to having a new form of slavery being imposed on the peoples of the Third World. Now they try to tell us that we owe. We don't owe anything - not one cent.
Many times I have heard in Latin America that various rulers are considering forming an organization of debtor nations. They don't need to form a club, there are already many nations that belong to the club. What we need to do is to move forward in our solidarity and understanding between our peoples. We need to learn how to walk together. For us, our intentions are not to walk against the people of the United States. We want to walk with you as brothers and sisters in solidarity.
I want to finish with the following story in hope that it will help you to better understand the spirit of our peoples.
I was one of the judges participating in the peoples tribunal investigating human rights abuses in Guatemala that recently met in Madrid. One of the witnesses at that tribunal was a small indigenous woman from the Quiche region of Guatemala, Rigoberta Menchu. She was a small woman of 22 years and was wearing the traditional garb of her people. As I watched she told of the trauma of her people and how the army came and killed her father, her mother and her brothers. The soldiers locked the rest of the townspeople in the local church, doused it with gasoline and then set it on fire. No one survived. Rigoberta and another brother managed to escape and she has since dedicated her life to helping her people.
She recalled her mother and father and how they had taught her to follow the flight path of the birds. They had also taught her to listen to the wind so as to know when there would be a good harvest. She remembered how her father and mother, before plowing the soil, would honor the mother earth, the Pacha Mama. Her father and her mother learned how to respect and listen to the ancient ones, because it was from them that one learned the history and traditions of their people. Her parents also taught her of the special honor which was accorded to women. She also learned that expectant mothers were to be doubly honored because it involved not one but two lives. This is one of the most beautiful poems of hope to come from our peoples and it is this humble spirit which others seek to destroy.
We must unite and struggle in order that we may prevent these injustices and atrocities because this is not just something that is happening to a people far away. These are crimes committed against all of humanity. When we see the suffering of these people we cannot remain aloof and unconcerned. I always remember that great teacher of non violence here in the United States, Martin Luther King Jr. For me he has always been a great inspiration in our own struggles. He used to say that it was not the repression committed by bad people that hurt him most. It was the silence of the good people.
Here in the U.S. you have a lot of information, many times not fully correct. I ask that you inform yourselves correctly. Read what the alternative press is saying, read the information put out by the various Church-related organizations, and other investigative commissions. I believe that this is very important because then you will have a much clearer idea about what is taking place in Central America and then you can search out what alternatives should be pursued.
Alfonso Hernandez Lozano
Adolfo Perez Esquivel
Don Pedro Casandalis
Martin Luther King Jr.
University of Michigan