Environment, Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

Q&A: “The World Needs a New Social Contract”

Clarinha Glock interviews Argentine Nobel Peace Prize-winner ADOLFO PÉREZ ESQUIVEL

BARCELONA, Spain, Aug 4 2010 (IPS) - “We have to start thinking about a new social contract on a planetary scale, but also within each country,” says Argentine activist and scholar Adolfo Pérez Esquivel.

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel  Credit: Clarinha Glock/IPS

Adolfo Pérez Esquivel Credit: Clarinha Glock/IPS

At the age of 78, Pérez Esquivel, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1980, continues to work actively for peace and in the defence of human rights. He is one of the driving forces behind the movement to create an International Court of the Environment, based on the principle that ecological disasters are a crime against humanity.

To that end, the movement for the new court proposes modifying the 1998 Rome Statute, the founding treaty that established the International Criminal Court, which came into being in 2002.

On one of his frequent trips to this city in northeastern Spain, Pérez Esquivel sat down with IPS to discuss the situation in Latin America and the progress made towards bringing about a culture of peace in the world.

Q: Since the end of the military dictatorships in Latin America, how has the region evolved? A: After the dictatorships imposed by U.S. policy, there were major developments that led to a transition to “conditioned” or restricted democracies in Latin America.

It was a fast-moving process, linked to the (1982) war (between Argentina and Britain) over the Malvinas (also known as the Falkland Islands).

In the past, the confrontation was East-West, between the United States and the former Soviet Union. With the Malvinas war, the problem became North-South. The United States soon realised it was necessary to promote democracies. But neoliberal policies, privatisation and the appropriation of natural and other resources continued.

Q: Is Latin America still important to Washington? A: Even though it has had to focus on the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the United States has never stopped keeping an eye on Latin America. As soon as any country starts getting out from under the United States’ thumb, it finds itself at loggerheads with the U.S., like what has happened in the case of Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador or Argentina.

When (deposed President) Manuel Zelaya of Honduras began to have a different vision of the situation in his country, they toppled him in a coup legalised by parliament and the judiciary. It was a pilot experiment, to be applied in other countries, like Paraguay, for example, which is going through something similar.

Q: So is the U.S. again jockeying for position in the region? A: They are creating a military “pincher” in the continent: the Puebla-Panama Plan (a major development initiative stretching from Puebla in southern Mexico to Panama in the south) for Central America and the Caribbean; Plan Colombia (the multi-billion-dollar U.S.-financed counterinsurgency and anti-drug strategy), including seven bases (to be loaned to the U.S. military) under the pretext of fighting the drug trade and terrorism; the Tri-Border region (where Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay converge); and, the Malvinas Islands, where a (British) military base operates.

In addition, transnational corporations are seeking the resources needed in the wealthy countries.

Nevertheless, strong social, cultural and political forces are emerging. The Bolivian government, for example, is recuperating national enterprises and natural resources (like natural gas) that had been privatised.

It has taken a number of important steps, such as formally recognising Bolivia as a “plurinational” state containing indigenous peoples, or adopting measures to overcome illiteracy and health problems. The same thing is happening in Venezuela.

Q: But these governments have been widely criticised. What is your take on them? A: There are no perfect democracies, only “perfectible” democracies with room for improvement. For example, democracy in Venezuela is different from the apparent democracy in Colombia, where there is repression, control by (far-right) paramilitary groups, intervention by the armed forces, four million internally displaced people and five million people in exile.

Colombians vote, but it is not simply voting that guarantees democracy: it is participation by the people. With all of their difficulties and errors, countries of Latin America have taken qualitative steps towards the construction of participative democracies, which are a work in progress.

Q: Have things changed since U.S. President Barack Obama took office? A: No. Obama reached the government, but he doesn’t actually have the power. He pledged to put an end to the war in Iraq, but intensified it instead, and the same thing happened in the case of Afghanistan.

He does not have the conditions of governance that the presidents of Bolivia, Venezuela and Ecuador enjoy. Their governments are united through Mercosur (the Southern Common Market trade bloc), Unasur (Union of South American Nations) and the Banco del Sur (Bank of the South, a South American multilateral lender). This unity is the only way to stand up to the major global powers.

Q: Can that unity block a coup d’état in Paraguay, as you referred to earlier? A: Of course. Argentine President Cristina Fernández did something interesting. On May 25, Revolution Day in her country, when the bicentennial of the revolution that led to independence was celebrated, she received (toppled Honduran president) Manuel Zelaya with the honours befitting a sitting president.

This is awkward for the United States, whose hegemony is thus undermined. Latin America has to strengthen its unity, because it has enormous natural resources, and the next war will be over water, energy resources and food. The only way to strengthen this region is through economic, cultural and political alliances.

Q: You mentioned emerging Latin American social forces. What were you referring to, more specifically? A: The women’s movement, for example. Women are leading actors throughout the region, from indigenous peoples to the spheres of science, technology and intellectual thinking.

Another important force is the indigenous movement. Native peoples have begun to organise and to recover their identity, their culture and their spirituality.

In third place are social movements, which are generating a new way of doing politics and are building participative democracy.

This leads us to something that I often insist on: we have to start thinking about a new social contract on a planetary scale, but also within each country. When the Real Academia Española (Royal Academy of the Spanish Language) held a meeting, we organised a parallel Congress on Languages, because we are not a monolingual country, and we have to respect that diversity.

When I talk about a new social contract, I am also referring to this, because domination does not begin with the economy, but with culture.

Q: Has progress been made in the campaign to establish an International Court of the Environment? A: One of the things I do is preside over the International Academy of Environmental Sciences (IAES) in Venice, Italy, which is made up of 120 scientists, where we work on the world’s pressing environmental problems.

The area of human rights focuses more on damages to “persons” than to “peoples” as a whole. In 1976, the International League for the Rights and Liberation of Peoples proclaimed the Universal Declaration of the Rights of Peoples. I believe that efforts must be focused on addressing the damages to indigenous peoples, to entire populations, caused by water and air pollution.

In 2001, the FAO (U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation) published a report that stated that more than 35,000 children a day were dying of hunger worldwide. That’s what I call economic terrorism.

We are calling for a reform of the Rome Statute. At the same time, an international campaign must be launched, for people all over the world to exert pressure. Resistance aimed at getting governments to make changes must come from the grassroots level.

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