In 1980, Adolfo Pérez Esquivel was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work exposing the excesses of Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship, which was responsible for indiscriminate violence, jailing, torture and the disappearance of 30,000 people between 1976 and 1983. Esquivel—a sculptor, architect and pacifist—helped found the Permanent Assembly for Human Rights in 1975, and traveled throughout Latin America to raise awareness about the dictatorship. He was arrested in 1977 while renewing his passport and remained in detention, suffering frequent torture and beatings, until the following year. The Nation sat down with Esquivel at his office in the San Telmo neighborhood of Buenos Aires to talk about the promise of Occupy Wall Street, the emptiness of the United Nations and prospects for structural reform in the United States. —Kelly Hearn

What do you think of the Occupy Wall Street movement?

I think it is a good thing. It’s a reaction from people who are confronting a grave social and economic crisis. It’s not just an economic crisis. It’s a socioeconomic problem. There is a strong social deterioration not only on Wall Street but also in Europe, in these countries that are based on capitalism of speculation and consumption. Logically, this is causing great difficulties.

What has the movement achieved?

At the very least it has shown there to be serious problems in societies that believe themselves to be untouchable, the poorly named first world. Right now, we don’t have a “first world,” “second world” or “third world.” We have one world that is poorly distributed. Up until now these societies didn’t realize what was happening. Now they are waking up. Their dreams lasted a long time. Now, instead of dreams, they have a nightmare. And the nightmare is affecting their lives. It is affecting their state of well-being, which they thought was unalterable. But now they see it is alterable.

Consider something curious. The United States, the premier leader of the developed world, the free world, is now the biggest debtor to China, the “Capi-Communista.” There are no static societies. All societies are subject to strong changes, and today the neoliberal model can’t withstand what’s happening. Speaking from an economic point of view, I am proposing that we develop a new social contract on a global scale. Rousseau proposed a new social contract that initiated democracy, but it’s finished. We have to create a new social contract that includes the reformation of transnational entities like the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and even the United Nations, which no longer makes any sense.

What is your opinion of the United Nations?

The United Nations today is completely empty. We have to give it content. We have to democratize it. Consider in 1945, when the United Nations was first formed, there were something like fifty-one original member countries. Now the United Nations is made up of 193 nations, but it follows the same structure in which five nations control it. It’s an anti-democratic structure. There’s no participation from the rest and, besides, these countries only use the UN when it suits their interests. Take Libya, for example, the NATO intervention in Libya. It’s an absolute and total aberration, and it goes against all the values and positions of the UN, which was created for peace. The preamble of the UN says, “We the peoples of the United Nations…” The people of the United Nations don’t exist in the United Nations.

What is your message to the students driving the protest in Chile? What is your message to young people who want to make a change?

The students in Chile are doing what they have to. They are demanding their right to access for all and free education. This is the responsibility of the state. That fact can’t be denied. You can’t privatize education. You can’t privatize healthcare. You can’t privatize the right to work. The Chilean students are demanding their rights, along with, for example, the Mapuches, the indigenous people.

Before, protagonism fell on a few. Today it is the masses that embody it. These are the masses demanding change. [Chilean President Sebastián] Piñera has taken the wrong road. He is someone with a neoliberal mentality, a capitalist, an economist. He believes you have to privatize, so that only those with money will have access. This is a huge political error.

What do you think of Obama?

I was in the US during the last presidential election, when Obama emerged full of hope. There are two things. I’ve written him a few letters. First, we have to be clear. He won the presidency, but he did not obtain power. Obama doesn’t have any power within the government of the United States. That’s because the United States operates in another way. The owners of the United States are the big corporations and the military-industrial complex. But the people of the United States believe this is democracy. Now that the economic crisis has started, you’re seeing a reaction against Obama. But they supported the neoliberal model. Some say about the neoliberal economic model, “We have to humanize it.” But we cannot humanize it because it was born without a heart. We have to change the modes of production toward a more equal economy, toward a redistribution of wealth.

Let’s look at the defense budget of the United States. It is close to $700 billion. One combat plane, [among] the cheapest, cost $90 million. Another example is the Spirit, this sophisticated plane used in Libya and Iraq, which costs more than $2 billion. A little of what I told Obama in the letter is that the debt is so big that you cannot repay it. You might repay it if you reduce the defense budget. Take the cheapest combat plane, look at how much it costs, and you will see how many hospitals you can have, how many schools, how many new jobs, how many opportunities to improve life rather than cause death. I spent twelve days in Iraq. How many bombs have they dropped to kill [so many] children with their mothers in Baghdad? What are we talking about here? We’re going around and around in circles. Let’s deal with hard facts. I’m presenting hard facts. How do we change this if there is no political will? There is no other way to change this except through the rebellion of the people. Los indignados indignadisimos! The most indignant of the indignant! The more indignant they are, the more they are demanding change!