“An Inconvenient Newspaper” is an essay about the recent closure of the Buenos Aires Herald, a paper that wrote against the Argentine military dictatorship, in English, in the 1970s and 1980s. The Buenos Aires Herald closed in July, just as an Argentine indigenous rights activist disappeared. The full profile of Robert Cox, the director of the Herald, was published in a Portuguese translation in issue no. 133 of the Brazilian magazine Piauí, released in October 2017. This English translation is an abridged version of the original Spanish article by Josefina Licitra.
“Any news?” That’s how Robert Cox greets me. He says “hello” and “nice to meet you” with an affectionate kiss on the cheek. But in the following sentence he always probes for the unexpected, for the possibility of news. It’s 10 a.m. on a Thursday and Cox looks like he just woke up. His eyes are still sleepy and his white hair finger-combed.
“Not that I know of,” I reply.
Cox makes coffee in the kitchen and brings it to the living room: a pleasant space scattered with paintings, family photos, and other decorations. He lives with his wife, Maud Daverio, in Charleston—in the United States—but also keeps this old, elegant Buenos Aires apartment, which he visits every year. This is where he lived after getting married, in 1961. This is where his five children were born. This is where he lived when the Buenos Aires Herald, the English-language newspaper that he directed from 1968 to 1979—one of a kind in Latin America—became the Argentinian publication that spoke out about human rights violations during the last military dictatorship, at a time when no other media institution would. And this is the place that he had to leave when a series of threats—also directed against his wife and one of his children—forced his family into exile.
Cox looks through the voile curtains. Outside the window is a narrow street lined with the pompous buildings of the Recoleta neighborhood, one of the most European areas of Buenos Aires. “I don’t know what happened with Santiago Maldonado…” he says, and clicks his tongue with an audible tsk. “Still no news? Weird.”
Santiago Maldonado is—was?—an artisan who supported the struggle of radical indigenous groups that reclaim land in Patagonia. This past August 1st, after a protest that stopped traffic, he disappeared in the middle of a confrontation with the Gendarmería—border officers. Some say that the police arrested him and accidentally killed him through the use of excessive force. Others say that there is no evidence to show that the government was at fault—and to this day there still isn’t—but they also can’t come up with a different explanation for his disappearance. Since then, demands to find Maldonado alive—or to find him at all—have deepened the divisions between Argentina’s governing party and its opposition. While the government refers to Maldonado as an “artisan,” kirchneristas and left-wing parties call him a desaparecido—one of the “disappeared.”
That term, in Argentina, dredges up the history in which Robert Cox was involved.
It’s 3 p.m. on Friday, September 8th, the International Day of Solidarity of Journalists. Cox is at the National Radio. The public broadcasting organization had invited him to speak about his life, in part due to the day itself, but also because of a recent and unexpected event: in July 2017, the Buenos Aires Herald closed its doors after 140 years of circulation.
“This line of work gives us the chance to meet incredible people,” the radio host finally says, and introduces his guest: “Joining us now is one of the most important journalists to pass through our country. Beyond his international recognition, this is a man we appreciate because, despite not being Argentinian, he stood up during a terrible time in our history, when it was very difficult to do so. When no one else could bring themselves to speak out, Robert Cox, in the Buenos Aires Herald, said what had been silenced. Good afternoon, Bob.”
Cox calmly says hello.
What comes next, amongst other things, is the story of a life.
Cox was born in Great Britain in 1933. At age twenty-six, while reading the classified section of the World Press News, he saw that an Argentinian newspaper circulating amongst the British expat community in Buenos Aires was looking to hire journalists. Since he wanted to see the world, Cox applied, got the job, and started preparing for the trip by studying Spanish at home through phonographic record audio lessons. He then packed his clothes, books, and a smoking jacket—which was, at that time, mandatory for journalists covering high society events—and, in 1959, carrying a tennis racket and pushing his luggage in a metal cart, he boarded the boat that would take him to Buenos Aires.
What started out as a newspaper for the British expat community, covering shipping commerce and certain international events, such as elections in Switzerland or cricket games in India, grew to become a general-interest publication read by British citizens who had children, or even grandchildren, living in the country.
Because of Cox, who wanted to report on the streets, the paper started to print local news. And it also started to circulate information that inconvenienced the government of the time. “The Buenos Aires Herald reports in English on the news the Argentinian papers silence,” said journalist and politician Rogelio Frigerio, public servant under Arturo Frondizi (1958-1962) and director of the magazine Qué. The comment alluded to the role that the Herald played in Juan Domingo Perón’s third term, which began in 1973. But Perón died in 1974 and left the presidency to his widow and vice-president, María Estela Martínez de Perón. Under Isabelita—the name by which she is remembered—and alongside the Anti-communist Alliance of Argentina, known as the Triple A, the state terrorism leading up to the March 24th, 1976 coup began. Cox heard news of the coup when he was the director of the Herald, which at the time was owned by the Evening Post Publishing Company, an American media conglomerate that had newspapers in South Carolina. Though it is true that the Herald and other newspapers approved of military intervention at first, since Isabelita’s government had spun out of control, Cox quickly understood that this so-called “gentle revolution” was no such thing.
In the radio studio, Cox remembered how he realized the danger that was growing in Argentina.
“One day, a letter came for Andrew Graham Yooll, the managing editor at the Herald. It was from an elderly Anglo-Argentinian couple, and they recounted the death of their son-in-law,” he says. The letter told a story that Cox and Yooll resolved to hear in person. They traveled to Zárate, just over sixty miles outside of the city of Buenos Aires, and listened to the description of a murder. The victim was a forty-year-old man, the director of a lab who was going back to school to get his doctorate in chemistry. For that reason, he met with younger students in his lab. And for that reason, he was also labeled as suspicious.
One night they knocked on his door. From inside, the family saw the silhouettes of the police and thought it might be a problem with their business. They opened the door. Men with no badges and heavy boots brusquely took the chemist, without force. The family thought he would come back in a few hours, but instead he appeared three days later in a ditch, nearly dead. He died a few hours later in a nun’s health clinic; and during the funeral, from a distance, a car passed by throwing paper pamphlets that read, “justice to the traitor,” as though members of the montoneros, a peronista guerilla group, had committed the murder.
“But the cars were Ford Falcons,” Cox remembers. Green Ford Falcons were the emblematic vehicle of state terrorism: that’s the car that thugs drove when they kidnapped people. “I’ve never heard of another car brand that was associated with something like that…” he adds. Cox has a far-off look in his eyes. When he was a kid, a German airplane plunging through the sky and cutting through the quiet of the London suburb where he lived signaled the start of the Second World War. Since then Cox was waiting for another war: that’s why he doesn’t throw out leftovers and why he saves food in jars. Maybe it’s also why he gets that far-off look. The fear and fascination with which he watched that plane comes back with every discussion of dark events.
“Did you print that story in the Herald?” asks the radio host.
“No, it was too risky, and the family started getting threats. I was a correspondent for The Washington Post and published it there. But I changed the names. I said that this was not a gentle revolution like they had said, that it was very bloody. I also published another article saying that there was no freedom of the press, that there was a gentlemen’s agreement among the most important papers to not report on what was happening.”
After that story, Cox began covering, now for the Herald, other news that was excluded from local publications. He wrote about the Palotino massacre, in which three priests and two seminarians who belonged to the Movement of Priests for the Third World were murdered in cold blood in July 1976 in a Buenos Aires church. While the rest of the papers printed the official story, which said that the montoneros had done it, the Herald said that a government strike force was at fault. With that story, Cox established an editorial line that grew stronger as months passed, making the Herald an indispensable publication. Many people bought it just to read the editorial—which by law had to be published in Spanish—and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo, the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, would go to the newsroom to report the disappearances of their children.
Cox made a platform for these stories because he was brave—even though he wouldn’t say so—and because there were two factors working in his favor: the support of the US embassy (which followed President Jimmy Carter’s orders) and the military’s difficulties in understanding English. In any case, the journalist did not limit himself to reporting on the crimes. He also started attending meetings with members of the government—including Albano Harguindeguy, the dictatorship’s Minister of the Interior—carrying lists of names. “Look at what’s happening. Argentina is lawless. These people disappeared,” he would say.
Until someone got tired of the pressure.
One afternoon, he was in his office at the Herald finishing a piece about the Independence Day in the Netherlands when the paper’s receptionist came to tell him that he had visitors. Cox leaned over to look out the window: he wanted to see if there was a Ford Falcon outside. But instead he saw three men getting out of a Peugeot. One had guns crossing his body like a Mexican bandit, and the other two wore black leather jackets and visibly carried pistols. They went up to his office. While this happened, Cox thought about the adventure books he had read as a kid in England, specifically one called Bulldog Drummond in which the protagonist approaches the most difficult situations with British decorum. With that as his example, Cox played his role. “If you could please wait a moment for me to finish my work, I’ll be right with you,” he said, as he looked for his coat. He then went outside with poise and got into the back of the car. The two men in leather jackets sat on either side of him and entertained themselves during the ride by counting how many people they’d killed that day.
Cox breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that the car was parking in front of a police station—somewhere official. Once inside, after walking past a room decorated with a swastika, he was taken to a basement where he had to take off his clothes—he hung his coat carefully, as he imagined they would in Bulldog Drummond—and was locked in a narrow cell with high ceilings that they referred to as the “tube.”
“Once my eyes adjusted, I started to see the writing on the walls,” he recalls. “There were prayers to Jesus, messages ‘to my mother’… There were no political mottos, except for one that said, ‘Ever onward to victory.’” It really affected me to see those screams on the walls. I came from a family where my father was a soldier and my wife’s uncle was a general under Perón… for me, it was impossible to think that men in the Armed Forces would want to hurt me or my family. I didn’t understand that the military wasn’t there to keep us safe. But those men, unfortunately, had become monsters.”
Over the course of three days, those men tried to find out what the editorial line in the Buenos Aires Herald was, without torture. Cox said it was a liberal newspaper in the classic sense of the word, that the Herald put into practice the ideals of the French Revolution. But none of the policemen understood that. They wanted to know if Cox was a communist, if he was a Jew like the owners of The New York Times. If, like all Jews—this was how the military understood the world—he was a Marxist. This continued until Maud, who had started to mobilize her contacts the moment she heard of her husband’s arrest, saved Cox from the interrogations—and from any worse fate.
Days later and now free, Cox—far from staying quiet—went back to the reports of human rights violations and continued publishing the names of the victims of state terrorism. If the names were known, the international pressure for the prisoners to appear alive would intensify.
“So the world found out about what was happening thanks to you,” the radio host says.
Cox pauses. It’s clear that he’s having an inner dialogue with his own vanity, or his lack thereof.
“And thanks to my colleagues at the Buenos Aires Herald, Andrew Graham-Yooll, James Neilson…”
“Were they brave, or just following your lead?”
“We weren’t brave. We were dedicated,” he says and nods his head as though he were talking about fate. “I really tried to save lives. And I think that journalism is synonymous with human rights. I believe that. From my experiences here, I know what a country without journalism means, and it’s the most terrible thing you can think of.”
After that, Cox answers more questions—he says that Cristina Kirchner was “antidemocratic,” that Mauricio Macri “doesn’t care about human rights”—and he talks about Barack Obama who, in his visit to Argentina, praised Cox for his “bravery.” They talk until the radio program switches to a news segment: a brief pause in which the correspondent, from the other studio, reads the latest developments.
“You have that attitude of the classic journalist, always critical of power,” the radio host says off the air.
“Yes… I was always most content when they attacked me from both sides,” Cox replies politely, but his attention is elsewhere. Cox is actually focused on the news update. And that’s why he asks, finally, “any news about Santiago Maldonado?”
Translated from the Spanish by Lara Norgaard
Josefina Licitra is an Argentine journalist and writer. Her articles have appeared in newspapers such as Clarin, La Nacion, Perfil and Crítica. The author of three nonfiction books, she is a recipient of the Gabriel García Márquez Journalism Prize.
Lara Norgaard is a graduate of Princeton University in Comparative Literature with a focus on Latin America. She teaches English and researches public memory in Brazilian literature as a 2017-2018 Fulbright Scholar in Brazil.
Photo credit: Rodrigo Mendoza and Alejandro Guyot
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