Nestor Fantini, Human Rights Activist, Interviewed by David Garyan
Interlitq Interview Series
DG: We live in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. The fragility of the democratic values we cherish are being tested by a virus that in many ways requires people to set aside their personal liberties for the greater benefit of society, and for good reason; in this respect, especially, the frailty of the nation-state—if we see it as the representation of a single individual’s will—is being exposed. In a globalized world, however, no nation can really exist by itself, and yet, these are precisely the principles on which nation-states are grounded: independence, self-reliance, and a strange sort of homogenous unity. From a human rights perspective, how has COVID impacted nation-states and what does this mean for minority populations living within them?
NF: From a human rights perspective, COVID has, in a strange way, greatly impacted nation-states, and, at the same time, the influence of the pandemic has only shown what we’ve known for a long time, yet repeatedly refused and still refuse to acknowledge—that minorities have and continue to be the ones who must bear the greatest burden of society’s ills; in this respect, the pandemic has done very little to alter the age-old problems of minority discrimination. From the suffering imparted by economic stagnation to the dangers and inconveniences of navigating poor infrastructure, it has always been and it still is to this day the ones on the fringes of society who’ve had to struggle most in order to ensure their own survival—overcoming a pandemic like the one we have right now is certainly no exception to this rule. Take, for example, a country like India; it offers a fascinating case study related to our discussion because we can look at this very pressing matter from different perspectives, an economic one and that of human rights; in terms of the former, we know that people are having a hard time dealing with the virus because there’s a great deal of poverty to be found there; in addition, those people already disadvantaged must deal with the fact that the infrastructure which is available to them is mostly neither spacious enough nor even safe by any means to accommodate proper quarantine measures required by the very governments who institute those “safety” regulations to begin with—in some cases, these authorities are even responsible for the construction of such dwellings, government housing, for example. What I’m trying to say, hence, is that there are many problems like the ones people are facing in India also to be found in the US—perhaps not to the same extreme degree, but the characteristics, certainly, the nature of the difficulties are not that drastically different, at least from the economic side of managing a pandemic. At the same time, the problem, as you say, isn’t just an economic one—it plays out along racial and ethnic lines as well. Neither I nor anyone will be very much surprised to hear that the privileged are going to encounter far less problems getting their hands on the vaccine first. In India, the caste system will contribute to this dilemma while in the US the issue will be determined by equally predictable factors—ethnicity and race. In both cases, the social constructs of skin color and cultural hierarchies, and that’s precisely what they are—things created by humans—will determine how nation-states are going to react to the problem. So, I’m afraid there’s no simple answer to the question of how COVID has impacted nation-states from a human rights perspective, since we can say that it has impacted them quite a bit, yet, at the same time, almost not at all because minorities are in many ways fighting the same battles for justice they were fighting hundreds of years ago.
DG: We are precisely seeing what might happen when the existence of democratic governments is threatened; it was, after all, only a year ago that Italian authorities—in their attempt to control the outbreak—orchestrated an unprecedented shutdown of the entire country, which, according to the Italian paper Avvenire, constituted the largest suppression of constitutional rights in the history of the Italian Republic. Almost exactly a year later, Italy has blocked vaccine shipments to Australia. As someone who has directly experienced how authoritarian measures can be justified to stop threats real or imagined, how concerned should we be that, perhaps in the future, even more extreme measures might be employed, if and when the situation does worsen? Let us hope not.
NF: I happen to see the issue in a somewhat different way. If we look at WWI and WWII, for example, many of the genuine and necessary sacrifices, which we might today interpret as “constitutional suppressions of our rights,” were an indispensable part of the machinery which successfully combated fascism. The famous WWII poster Loose Lips Might Sink Ships comes to mind now. Indeed, from a retrospective viewpoint, we can look at the matter as a hackneyed piece of propaganda—something to dismiss simply on principle altogether, and many of us would feel comfortable doing just that, mainly because we, as of today, know very well there were no elaborate German plots to ruin the country from the inside, merely as an example. However, it’s important to remember that at the time—during the most critical moments of the war—we had no real way of gauging the extent of the danger we could’ve or could not have found ourselves in. Of course, freedom of speech and all other constitutional rights are always important and should be upheld wherever and whenever it’s possible to do so; at the same time, during periods of national emergencies or wars, we must seriously and critically reevaluate those rights—the best way to implement them in unpredictable circumstances, for instance—if we’re to consider ourselves responsible, politically engaged citizens. Another example I would like to bring to your attention is the League of Nations and its failure to stop WWII from happening; it was precisely the inability of the respective governments to work in unison which brought this second crisis about. In this respect, I admit, it certainly is a bit concerning to see political maneuvers such as blocked vaccine shipments and other things of this nature, but, really, what’s more frightening to me is how the pandemic is being used as an excuse for governments to become more authoritarian; indeed, it’s one thing to say that we must work in harmony to make certain sacrifices that will become beneficial for all of society, and it’s an entirely different thing for the government to use the pandemic as a cover to achieve exactly the opposite—making society even more authoritarian to the detriment of us all. Do you see the difference? To definitively answer your question so that there can be no doubt about it: There are genuine sacrifices which are worth making, even when they happen to encroach on the so-called human rights, if only for the benefit of a better world in the future, while those disingenuous sacrifices—the ones which authoritarian governments falsely portray as being “necessary” are not the ones I’m referring to when I speak of democratic societies implementing cautionary measures (in this case sanitary ones) with benevolent intentions for its citizenry.
DG: With the election of Donald Trump, it has become clear that economic problems, coupled with a majority population’s grievance over whom a nation really “belongs” to, can lead to some unfortunate consequences. Alas, such problems have existed for centuries, always leading to disaster. It is safe to say that throwing a pandemic into this equation does not help matters. Is it too much of a stretch, then, to draw a connection between COVID and the economic/political problems that plunged the entire European continent into not only two world wars, but also genocides, and countless other human rights abuses? Given how the US loves to frame its problems in militaristic terms (the war on drugs or war on poverty, for example), it is quite appropriate to say that we have now lost more people “fighting” COVID than all the casualties our troops suffered in WWII. Is this the end of American prestige?
NF: I don’t believe so. Perhaps I might consider the argument that Donald Trump himself was the end of American prestige but even that wouldn’t be correct. Many people still look to the US for leadership and guidance. Donald Trump did much to undermine that faith and trust; however, our ability to contribute towards the effort of making this a better world—and, yes, fighting the pandemic—has by no means disappeared; that’s not to say the task will be easy. Changes must come and they must be substantial. I’ve already spoken at length about minorities and those in underprivileged positions; more specifically, however, at the national level, the government has to roll out vaccination programs with greater efficiency and speed. With regard to international measures, we must reengage not only the European continent but also the entire world in those cooperative efforts which Trump abandoned during his term—the World Health Organization, of course, but also pacts like the Paris Agreement. Already this is starting to happen with meetings between top officials of institutions such as the aforementioned WHO. As I said before, indeed, we can draw a connection between the forces of history, which seem to be running parallel to our times—precisely as many historians and scholars would expect them to—but if that’s the case, there’s a more positive side to such developments as well, at least in terms of arguing against the end of American prestige. This line of thinking—the decline of America—is really nothing new and from my perspective, I really begin to see it emerging during and after the American Civil War. The country was in ruins—certainly as divided as it could ever be—and we’re not even mentioning the economic and political tolls that came about as a result of those events. Many people couldn’t imagine how a country so divided and broken could rebuild itself after such an experience. Undoubtedly, in 1865, the nation had overcome the worst disaster, which was secession, but at what price? We know that the war had done a great deal in leaving a legacy of economic backwardness and polarization that, in many ways, is still felt today across large parts of the land. Why do I say this? Precisely for the fact that the US was by no means the most powerful and influential country after the Civil War, but it nevertheless managed to become that very beacon, despite suffering circumstances which were far worse than what we’ve now endured under Donald Trump. Still, people may argue that the difference isn’t so great between what transpired during those four years of 1861 through 1865 and our own four years of 2016 through 2020—let me just state that they would probably be right in making such a claim, but even if they’re not wrong, I maintain that it wouldn’t be unjustified to believe, at the same time, that America has likewise not seen its best days yet. In other words, if people want to think this is our 1865, then so be it, but there are nevertheless two roads still facing us—the question hence becomes: Do we take the right one or the wrong one? I say only that choice, and that choice alone can really determine whether the end of American prestige has in fact come or not.
DG: Politics have always been a sensitive issue—in the sense that it has mostly been students and young people who have been at the forefront trying to make real changes. Despite the substantial progress achieved over the years, things have not gotten “easier,” however. Just last February, for example, Patrick Zaki, an Egyptian student studying at the University of Bologna, was arrested after traveling back to his home country. He was beaten and tortured and remains incarcerated to this day, due to his work as a human rights activist. In a way, for the college students who’ve never experienced what it feels like to be incarcerated, the “idealism” runs high, meaning they really believe in being able to change the world, which, inherently, is not a bad thing; and yet this is precisely the attitude which can also lead to a lot of unnecessary grief not only for them, but their parents as well. What advice, looking back on your own life, would you give the younger generation? What is the right course for those looking to “change” the world—political idealism, apolitical intellectualism, detached pessimism, or a combination of all three?
NF: I completely understand the cautionary advice surrounding political idealism, and, yet, I also neither see apolitical intellectualism nor detached pessimism as the answer. Perhaps I can get on board with balancing the three, but, despite the difficulties which I’ve had to endure myself, I’m still inclined to say that political idealism is important. Real change can’t come without idealism; we can think of it almost like a polar star—we will never reach the celestial body, the so-called promised land itself—but we can use its light as a guiding point for where we need to go and what needs to be done. I’m familiar with the Zaki case and it’s another one of the many unfortunate incidents this generation has had to endure. The truth about political prisoners such as Zaki in Egypt lies precisely in the fact that for Egypt the matter really has very little to do with Zaki himself, while, for the world at large, the matter really has little to do with Egypt. What do I mean? My point is that Egypt has decided to detain Patrick Zaki not because of who he is or what he’s supposedly done or not done, as a matter of fact; no, they’ve imprisoned him precisely because of what he represents. The detention of Zaki, and others like him, is a form of deterrence, of psychological warfare, if you will, utilized by authoritarian governments to send the following message to all would-be dissidents: See what happens if you disobey. In reality, the actual person of Patrick Zaki—the sole man in the flesh—poses very little existential danger to a state like Egypt, and not because he hasn’t done anything wrong, but even if he did, his isolated actions by themselves would still not be able to bring down an entire state; this is something the status quo knows very well; thus, what governments really fear is the non-corporeal ideology within the flesh of Zaki—something less “unique” than the individual of whom only one “copy” exists in the world. Ideology, on the other hand, is easily transferred, replicated, and much harder to kill because you can neither touch it, nor even see it. Ideology can infect great amounts of people just as quickly as a virus can—funny that we should be talking about that during a pandemic—and it is precisely that which governments really dread the most, especially during a pandemic. Authoritarian governments, hence, view dissident ideology with both a great suspicion and unease because it represents a sort of virulent revolution, a type of revolutionary movement guided by entities even more dangerous than COVID. For this reason, countries like Egypt quickly try to quarantine any and every “host” of “threatening” ideology they can get their hands on—all in the attempt to prevent their ability to spread it, but like our pandemic, for example, COVID itself isn’t dangerous unless it proliferates. And since authoritarian governments view political dissidents like viruses, it makes sense for them to try and keep people locked in “labs” to prevent their doctrines from diffusing. The second issue I raised is the one for the world at large. What do I mean? There are hundreds of democratic countries out there and only one Egypt. Why haven’t those powerful democracies managed to free Zaki from his Egyptian jail cell? Precisely because, like with Zaki, the matter has little to do with Egypt. As we’ve already discussed, the issue revolves exactly around the concept of nation-states—they are, in fact, based on a strange mixture of self-reliance, independence, and homogeneity, as you pointed out earlier. By nature, hence, nation-states love conformity, and while many can handle some forms of dissent, it’s not the way they would inherently prefer to operate, at least not on a consistent basis. I can think of no country in which the status quo prefers, more often than not, to have its views challenged rather than accepted. At the same time, I want to make clear that this isn’t an argument attempting to justify the silence of many nation-states on such matters—my point is that even the democratic countries like the US still have a long way to go in ensuring that minorities are protected, underprivileged voices are heard, and everyone’s needs are basically met, but this is a subject we’ve already discussed and I’m quite sure there’s no justification to repeat it. Instead, I’d like to say that the work of fighting for a better world must not stop, regardless of those difficulties; additionally, the efforts of securing the release of such prisoners of conscience like Zaki must continue like before. Believe it or not, just like those fighting for justice feel the pressure to conform when they witness the imprisonment of their fellow activists, so, too, the countries which imprison them likewise feel the pressure from the international efforts that try to secure their release. My message and advice, to answer your question, is the following: Do the best you can—call your local representatives, write to lawmakers, demand that action is taken; the key is consistent action, and, like I said, when governments do mobilize to demand the release of prisoners like Zaki, the status quo which has imprisoned them does consequently feel the weight of its own actions. These things take a long time, I know, but as you’re well aware, Amnesty International, along with their supporters, contributed a great deal in securing my own release. The work is difficult but it must never end.
DG: Speaking of idealism and optimism, the recent election of Joe Biden as President of the United States has certainly brought great aspirations—at least equaling and perhaps even surpassing the hope we had after Barack Obama’s election; and yet, a 2008 Gallup poll reveals the utter lack of enthusiasm people had for his selection as Vice President back then: “The only recent vice presidential choices to spark less voter reaction than Biden were Dick Cheney in 2000 (net 4%, with 14% more likely and 10% less likely) and Dan Quayle in 1988 (net score of 0, with 10% more likely and 10% less likely).” Additionally, people were concerned that should anything happen to Obama, Biden would consequently become president—clearly, the hope and optimism surrounding Obama was based on entirely different ideals than the positive surge that propelled Biden to the top; in the case of the former, it was a real belief in the possibility of change, while in the case of the latter it was the reassuring comfort that we would be returning to “normal,” meaning no more Twitter rants and a lot more “presidential” behavior. In this sense, what can Biden do to become more than just the anybodyisbetterthanTrump president?
NF: With regard to the numbers, they’re just that—numbers, and I’ll leave it that. I’m sure it’s not necessary to repeat the age-old maxim about statistics and lies. Personally, I tend to place a higher value on circumstances and the situational context. Okay, so in retrospect Biden wasn’t well-received in 2008. What difference does that make? All kinds of trends, ideas, and individuals were not popular at some point in time, but they managed to capture the public’s admiration later on. I can give many examples of people like Socrates, Galileo, and Darwin who were all basically loathed by one or another in their day and now most of us (the sensible ones, at least) revere them. And so, the Gallup poll might be right, and I have absolutely no doubt that it is, but, perhaps, this is precisely the reason to love Biden even more today. Let me say that, firstly, we’re no longer living in 2008, and, secondly, Biden himself isn’t the person he was thirteen years ago. When the poll was taken, he had no experience in the White House—something he has now, and this is a quality which I believe changes the game completely, rendering the argument more or less irrelevant. It’s certainly possible for people that you didn’t think of highly before to add new skills to their repertoires and this may go a long way in changing your opinion about any given individual. For example, a high school dropout might be the hometown punk, but there have been plenty of those who’ve turned their lives around for the better. Now, let’s reflect for a minute: Biden, as a senator running for vice president in 2008, was certainly not a loser before he ran for president, even if people didn’t think highly of him then, but with the additional experience he’s gained along the way, the prospect of having him as president instead of Trump must certainly, at this point, be much more desirable than the nuclear option, if I may be so blunt. To answer the second part of your question, I believe Biden has many opportunities to stand out—and success with the pandemic is his biggest opportunity. Earlier you mentioned that more people have now died from COVID-related complications than all the casualties our troops suffered in WWII. Well, wouldn’t it be something if Biden were to create a cohesive, targeted set of policies that were to not only substantially reduce the country’s burdens as they relate to the pandemic, but maybe even get rid of many ills altogether. We can no longer ignore the fact that people are in desperate situations. Businesses have been closing, individuals are being laid off, and young people are frustrated with both their immediate and future prospects. Indeed, it’s unfortunate, like you said in your previous question, that the US has historically approached its problems with a warlike mentality, but if Biden can successfully win this so-called “war,” it would instantly propel him to the rank of the more desirable presidents we’ve had over the course of this country’s recent history, if not its entire course. Having said that, containing a pandemic is no easy task, let alone completely beating one, but as a man who’s overcome many difficulties in his life already, I don’t see why this particular challenge isn’t within the realm of possibilities for him. Biden would need to surround himself with a skilled, knowledgeable staff capable of getting the job done—a tall proposition, certainly, but not too idealistic. The fact of the matter is that he’s been in office for just over two months—let’s see where the road leads.
DG: Many people are not only delighted but overwhelmed by excitement at the prospect of returning to normal under Biden’s leadership, but is that really what we want? In other words, might there still be a chance to shake up the system a little bit, to actually bring some change, for lack of better words, and if you’ll allow me the expression—to drain the swamp, but in a democratic, politically inclusive way, and what would such a presidency look like? We may even ask whether such trailblazing administrations can actually exist—Biden’s reluctance to do anything about the Khashoggi murder seems to be another discouraging sign that further reinforces the point: One cannot be a politician and idealist at the same time. How do you see it—should we resign ourselves, yet again, to the fact that nothing will really change, at least from the perspective of human rights?
NF: I’ve already spoken about the importance of political idealism for the youth and I understand how that can be a more pressing issue for politicians, especially those like Biden who are holding a high office; in this respect, too, I believe in moderation. The Khashoggi murder was a quite a surprise, but Biden’s reluctance to act appropriately right then may have been more due to circumstances than to his own ethical code of conduct. I can’t stress enough that Biden has been in office for just over two months. Punishing a major ally, even if they are one of the worst human rights offenders in not only the region, but also the world, is certainly the noble thing to do, but perhaps not the most sensible foreign policy objective carried out so early into one’s presidency, at least from the perspective of regional stability. Politics is, above all, about relationships and it’s best to be on safer grounds before embarking on such controversial decisions. From a human rights perspective, Biden’s actions aren’t possible to defend, but we must also think about the possibility of those very same human rights—which we do cherish so much—deteriorating even further if Biden had decided to act differently. What do I mean? Increased hostility, violence, and repression that could’ve sprung forth in the region as a result of the president’s decision to sanction a few of those actors. As far as changing things for the better, some revolutions, if you will, are better made gradually than quickly. I know this seems like an excuse, but I really do believe in progress and I think Biden is far more capable of giving us that, as opposed to Trump, at least from the much-needed perspective of human rights.
DG: It is not an overstatement to say that Donald Trump will be remembered as the worst president in recent US history. The only one who can really come close is Nixon, and, yet, aside from the Watergate scandal, he was actually pretty popular during his term; additionally, unlike Trump, it must be admitted that he was not nearly as deranged; that we should refer to Trump using such words is unfortunately necessary. What is truly regrettable, however, is Trump’s destruction of the Republican Party. In a country whose mindset was already insulated by the two-party system, it seems that the Democratic Party has really done it this time—with this election they have completely crushed their opponent for the foreseeable future; the silver lining in all of this is that Democrats now have an unprecedented opportunity to accomplish many of the things they could perhaps not have accomplished in other years, which may not be a bad thing altogether. And yet, as an American living in Europe, I tend to see party plurality as a largely positive development—something I wish we could have back home. How do you see the issue? What is the future of the Republican Party and can it ever really free itself from the legacy of Trump, from the mob who stormed the nation’s most hallowed place of democracy, trying to overturn a fair election?
NF: What you say about pluralism is interesting and I would agree with you, except for the fact that US politics have, for the most part, had priorities and intentions which could be considered different from their European counterpart; at the same time, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what those differences are, but what remains essential is that the Republican Party has been the one to stall many of the reforms that would’ve greatly benefited minorities, along with other deserving people in need. I don’t know if the Republican Party can ever win the trust of those populations again, but that point, also, may be an irrelevant one because the demographics of the nations are changing anyways. It has become an indisputable fact that by 2050, more or less, the composition of the country will have changed so much that White Americans will no longer be the majority. Now, when that happens, Republicans will be faced with two choices: Either get with the program, as they say, or fade from existence. For too long, the GOP has been trying their best to subjugate people in inner cities and low-income neighborhoods in general. From Reagan’s infamous trickle-down economics (but even before that) to Trump’s aggrandizement of the one percent, we’ve seen this movie play out too many times. What many people don’t know, however, is that a substantial number of these policies first arose in California. Those who are more or less my age will remember the Pat Buchanans and Pete Wilsons. Years upon years of discriminatory social and economic policies ultimately contributed to the fact that California has not sent a Republican to the Senate since 1992—almost thirty years. Part of that has to do with the effects of the ongoing demographic shift which I’ve already mentioned, but also the frustration and anger over not only state but also national policies endorsed by Republicans. As I’ve said already—big changes have to come. The future of the Republican Party will rely mainly on the following premise—its ability to embrace the future or not, simple as that. Already we’re starting to see Biden overturn many of Trump’s discriminatory policies, along with appointing minority candidates to top cabinet positions. Incidentally, we were speaking earlier about his ability to stand out as a president—in two months he’s already shown an aptitude for doing that. The appointment of Deb Haaland, the first Native American elected to serve in a cabinet secretary role, is an encouraging sign that we’re heading the right way. As far as the Republican Party, they will have to be receptive to similar changes if they want to be embraced by the representatives of the shifting demographic.
DG: What are you working on at the moment? Any interesting projects you would like readers to know about?
NF: I recently finished teaching a couple classes on criminology at Rio Hondo College. Although I retired some years ago, the urge to get back into teaching did catch up with me, and I plan to continue this activity on and off, naturally with a much lighter load of courses than I had before. These days I’m also contributing to the Spanish-language newspaper La Opinión. Life in retirement is wonderful but staying busy here and there isn’t bad either.
About Nestor Fantini
Nestor Fantini, born on May 11th, 1953, in Cordoba, Argentina, is a human rights activist, writer, educator, and former political prisoner. He has contributed to the Huffington Post, La Opinión, and has served as the editor of the online Spanish-language magazine HispanicLA.