He sees himself as anything but a holy man. But during Holy Week, Adolfo Perez Esquivel of Argentina, the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize winner, is bringing himself close to the spiritual meaning of Lent, Good Friday and the Resurrection. He is fasting and praying. Out of concern for--and in union with--the suffering of the victims of the violence in El Salvador, Perez Esquivel began a water-only fast last week in Washington.
In the chaotic politics of El Salvador, with the world watching and the poor dying, the symbolic actions of Perez Esquivel may seem to rest on the furthest fringes. But if peace in El Salvador is the goal, surely an acclaimed peacemaker--one who has been jailed and tortured for his beliefs--has a role. This age is too quick to stick the label "dreamer" on anyone who operates from only a moral base.
I asked Perez Esquivel about this during a long interview the day after he came to Washington. He spoke of the difference between moral power used to serve the poor of Latin America and political power exerted to dominate them. When it came up that both he and Henry Kissinger were Nobel Peace Prize laureates, Perez Esquivel smiled at the odd company he keeps. It's true, he said, that both he and Kissinger talk peace. But "the difference (between us) is greater than the Atlantic Ocean. He speaks of peace from a position of domination. I speak of peace from a position of trying to understand the poor of the world and their needs."
The evening before our conversation, Perez Esquivel led a candlelight march from a center city church to Lafayette Square. At the church, a service had been held in memory of Archbishop Romero, slain two years ago in San Salvador. To the peaceful assembly, Perez Esquivel said that visitors like himself "from Latin America are not pity-seekers . . . We say to those who look upon us as a poor continent and as poor people, listen, we are poor but we are poor with dignity and we are poor struggling for our own liberation."
Another speaker--more the firebrand, more the dispenser of guilt-- might have taken off from that thought into a bullhorn denunciation of the Reagan administration's chumminess with Latin American dictators. But Perez Esquivel is here seeking rapport, not disquiet.
"I've seen a change coming about in the American people," he told me. "A critical consciousness was lacking about what was going on--the lack of liberties--in other countries. But in the past few years, I've seen an awakening. . . . What was lacking to Americans was information they needed to really understand and judge the reality of other countries."
With information finally getting through--from the visits to the United States by leaders like Perez Esquivel, Cardinal Arns of Brazil; such powerful books as "Cry of the People" by Penny Lernoux; films like "Missing"; visits to Latin America by popes Paul VI and John Paul II--it is unlikely that Americans will revert either to ignoring Latin America completely or dismissing it as the land of siestas and sombreros.
No mistake should be made. The message brought to the United States by a Perez Esquivel is being heard and understood by large numbers of Americans. Perez Esquivel is not stroking his hosts when he says that "this solidarity of the American people has already helped a great deal in confronting the problems of injustice in the countries in Latin America."
Perez Esquivel, 50, who organized the Service for Peace and Justice in Latin America in the early 1970s, is a watched man in Argentina. Death threats are common. Travel is restricted. The day before his fast began, he learned that one of his three sons was reportedly among hundreds picked up by the Argentine police in an anti-government protest organized under the call for "bread, peace and work."
His son's detention--part of the continual denial of human rights in Argentina--is why Perez Esquivel said that his fast was not only for El Salvador but for his own country too. Praying and fasting during Holy Week, he said, symbolizes the conditions in which "the people of Latin America are living. We live with all the suffering and pain with the hope of the Resurrection."