S4 E26: Robert Cox, great journalist, on reporting the dictatorship

Hey, there. We bring you a special program today…

This is  an interview Fer taped at his job with the Public National Radio of Argentina, back in December 2009.

British-born Cox ran the Buenos Aires Herald daily for several years, including the Junta regime period, when it was the only newspaper in the country that actually inform on what was going on. His insight on Argentina is unique and enlightening. And he’s a great story-teller.

Excerpts of this chat, were used on BA Cast’s Proceso-Dirty War Documentary that you can find on our website. Now we bring you the full conversation. Hope you enjoy it.





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(In order of appearance)

Proceso de Reorganización Nacional. March 24, 1976. Unlike previous Coups, they didn’t call themselves a “Revolution”, because their government was going to be as much counter-revolutionary as it could be, on all levels, so the very word “Revolution” was rejected.

A Military Junta ruled the country, headed by the commanders of the three Armed Forces:

  1. General Jorge Rafael Videla (Army)
  2. Admiral Eduardo Massera (Navy)
  3. Brigadier Antonio Agosti (Air Force)

Of the three of them, Videla played the institutional role of President, but actual power lied on the Junta, that divided power in three equal parts, to avoid the infighting of past Military regimes, in which one faction resented the other. Practically all state agencies were put under the trusteeship of military officers who reported to their superiors, and them to the Junta. The Proceso was a bureaucratric mess, even for Argentine standards.

Part 1

  • Leftwing guerrillas: There were several but the two main ones: ERP (Revolutionary Army of the People), marxist, and the Montoneros, left-wing Peronists.
  • Far-rigth death squads: the deadliest was the Argentine Anticommunist Alliance, or the “triple A”
  • ESMA: It stands for Escuela Superior de Mecánica de la Armada (Navy Superior School of Engineering). The largest underground concentration camp of the 370 the Armed Forces set up across the country.
  • Death Flights: this method for getting rid of prisoners’ bodies was first admitted by Navy officer Adolfo Scilingo in the 1990s.
  • “No tiene entidad”: “There’s no status for him/her, we can’t say he is dead nor alive”.
  • Buenos Aires Herald. English-language newspaper founded in the 19th century. Practically the only exception in Argentine media when it came to reporting disappearances and abductions. The other media outlets would simply not talk about it, there was like a tacit pact not to do so. In any case, the military would check everything, and make phone calls to warn about articles they didn’t like (the excuse was that freedom of the press was tantamount to being functional to the enemy)
  • Robert Cox. Condecorated British journalist, who headed the BA Herald during the Junta years. His voice comes from an interview he gave to RAE, the English-language service of Radiodifusión Argentina al Exterior, Argentina’s Public Radio Foreign Service, back in November 2009. We thank RAE’s director Luis María Barassi for allowing BA Cast to use this material. And obviously Cox again, for granting RAE that interview, which I (Fer) considered an honor.
  • “Velvet Revolution”: An expression for a non-violent revolution. Cox is right on the spot when he describes the domestic and foreign perception of the Junta, during their first months in power. Since they weren’t acknowledging what they would doing, they made people believe the violence, the bodies that would be found anywhere on a daily basis, were the result of the fights between far-right and left-wing Armed Groups, and not part of the Junta’s repression plan.
  • “Por algo será/Algo habrán hecho”: the justification many Argentines gave to others and themselves, when they would learn about an abduction and disappearance. The Junta’s message was that good behaving  citizens had nothing to fear, and many people bought that. Iit was up to the Armed Forces’ discretion to determine who were “good behaving citizens”.
  • Facultad de Derecho: UBA’s School of Law. The space behind it was dark and empty, and Military gangs would use it, if they wanted to have privacy.
  • Facultad de Derecho

    Facultad de Derecho

  • Mara Burkart: UBA Sociologist. Her doctorate research is on the disguised, subtle critique of the Junta the Humor Magazine did.
  • James Neilson: BA Herald journalist, apart from writing for other publications. He is still in charge of the paper’s Thursday opinion column.
  • General Genaro Díaz Bessone: Planning Minister under the Junta. His voice comes from a documentary called “Death Squads: the French School” by French journalist Marie Monique Robin.The entire film is available on Youtube:
    • Franco and 1975 executions: Díaz Bessone recalls the decission of the Spanish dictator to have members of the ETA basque separatist group executed by firing squad, something that sparked great condemnation  all over the world.
    • 1973 Amnesty: When peronist president Héctor Cámpora takes power on May 25, that year, there’s a massive amnesty of political prisoners. The Military were outraged by this, and this is one of the reasons they decided to operate outside any legal framework when they returned to power 3 years later.
    • Madres de Plaza de Mayo: main Human Rights Organization in the country. They were founded in 1977, trying to gather information about their abducted children. The group was immediately seen as subversive by the Junta and they infiltrated them, resulting in the abduction of the group’s founder: Azucena Villaflor, who was later dropped from a plane into the Rio de la Plata. Her remains were found and positively IDed not long ago, and buried in Plaza de Mayo. The name of the group comes from the habit of meeting up once a week in the square, to claim for information about the abducted people. Since there was a curfew, outlawing any kind of public demonstration, the Police would ask them to leave, but the Mothers, instead of doing so, would start walking around the square, circumventing the restriction.
    • Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo: An organization engaged with tracking babies appropriated by the Military upon birth, from abducted mothers. The estimate of stolen infants between 1976 and 1983 is 500. So far, the Abuelas have recovered 100 plus.
    • SERPAJ: Servicio de Paz y Justicia. Human Rights group headed by Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, who was granted the Peace Nobel Prize in 1980 for his activism in favor of Human Rights (the reaction of the Junta was similar to that of the Chinese in 2010, when Liu Xiaobo was granted the same prize).
    • John Dinges . He wrote a book called “The Condor Years” in which a Chilean intelligence document is published, quoting an Argentine military source of the time.
    • CONADEP report: Stands for Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas National Commission on the Disappeareance of Persons. It was put together by President Alfonsín in 1984, and its findings were published in a book that became a classic on the subject: “Nunca Más” (“Never Again”).
    • Isabel Perón’s decrees: in 1975, the Constitutional government of Perón’s widow signed decrees authorizing the Army to “Anihilate the acts of the subversive guerrillas”. The military said later they based their repression plan on these decrees, whereas Peronist officials say they meant the annihilation of the power of the guerrillas, not the people who integrate them.
    • Dirty War – A term coined by the Junta, to convey the idea they were fighting a new type of war that required new, “dirty” methods.
    • Estadounidense: Citizen of the United States, in Spanish.
    • PInochet and his repression plan. Augusto Pinochet took power from elected Socialist president Salvador Allende in 1973. He set up a torture center in a soccer stadium, that received a lot of attention from all over the world: another reason for his Argentine counterparts to adopt an underground approach to repression, in which they would deny responsibility constantly.
    • 1985 Trial on the Juntas: After Military Courts acquitted all of the officers involved in repression, President Alfonsín decided they be tried by a civilian tribunal. The trial is known as “The Argentine Nuremberg”.Here’s the prosecution presentation, in Spanish .
    • Ramiro Menna: His parents are both disappeared and he’s looking for a brother or a sister who very was appropriated by military personnel, and raised under a different identity, keeping the truth from him (there are hundreds of 30 somethings in Argentina in this situation).
    • Nacht un Niebel: a repression method used by Nazis in occupied territories during World War II that resembles the Junta’s plan.

    Thanks to:

    • Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo for putting us in contact with Ramiro Menna, whom we also thank for his contribution.
    • Lucas Rentero and Eternautas, Kristie Robinson and the Argentina Independent, Mara Burkart (and Historian Cecilia Belej for putting us in contact).
    • Candela Farías and Jon Brandt , for dubbing Spanish language speech..

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