A Profile in Courage
Denouncing State Terrorism in Argentina
It may be argued that Dirty Secrets, Dirty War: The Exile of Editor Robert J. Cox should have been written three decades ago, most likely in 1981, when Cox was enjoying, as I do now, a Nieman fellowship.
Cox was then in his second year of exile, the bitter prize he had been awarded for making the English-language newspaper Buenos Aires Herald into one of the main advocates against state terrorism in Argentina.
The military junta was still in power, backed by the Reagan administration, and Latin American politics were a matter of public concern for a broad U.S. audience. Bob Cox’s book would have come out as a powerful indictment against the human rights violations taking place in Argentina at the time.
But he could not write this book then, neither can he today. “I have always believed in impersonal journalism, the reporter in a shabby raincoat that nobody notices who writes his stories without a byline,” he explains in the prologue to Dirty Secrets, Dirty War. Modesty, he concedes, was only one reason; it was too painful a story for him to write.
Twenty-eight years later, the Argentine tragedy of a distant past awakens little interest in a country that is beginning to come to terms with its own government’s human rights violations in the “war against terrorism.” But it is now when Cox’s son David, at last conquering his own arduous distance from the country in which he was born and raised, writes the book his father couldn’t. Significantly, he does it the year in which his father, 75, retired from journalism.
Why is this story still important for both the United States and Latin America?
In 1959, at 26, seeking to escape a dull middle-class existence in his native England, Bob Cox answered a classified advertisement for a newspaper job in Buenos Aires. The Buenos Aires Herald, founded by a Scotsman in 1876 as a shipping news single sheet, was, 83 years later, a small daily newspaper for the equally small English-language community in Argentina. Cox said good-bye to his homeland and boarded a ship that traversed the Atlantic toward a life of adventure and exoticism.
He got much more than that. After two years as a reporter in the Herald, he was promoted to news editor and soon afterwards he married Maud Daverio, an Anglo-Argentine whose prosperous family claimed an aristocratic British lineage.
Cox’s Argentina was quite different from that of most Argentine journalists. Bob and Maud lived in a wealthy, Parisian-like neighborhood, owned a weekend villa in an exclusive country club, sent their five children to an elitist English school, and spent their vacations in Europe. Cox entered a fraction of the Argentine society which was, for most part, fiercely anti-Peronist (mostly for classist reasons, Peronism being the party with which the working class identified) pro-military (several members of Maud’s family were officers,) politically conservative and, in many cases—to Cox’s shock—anti-Semitic.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, when Argentina’s working and middle classes radicalized, Cox opposed the guerrilla movements (plain “terrorism” in his nomenclature) and the political left. He received death threats from the Montoneros, the Peronist guerrilla, and was viewed “as a right-wing imperialist by the left,” as he puts it in his introduction to David’s book. When in 1976 a new military dictatorship overthrew a democratically elected government and took power with the stated purpose of crushing the “subversive elements” in the country, Cox, then editor of the Herald, almost applauded.
The Herald supported the military junta and its first leader, General Jorge R. Videla, as did the majority of the press. Cox had good contacts in the Armed Forces and met often with high-ranking government officials. He supported the new economic plan and had a dear friend appointed finance director at the Ministry of Economy.
Almost everyone Cox knew and loved saw the dictatorship as a way out from one of Argentina’s darkest periods. It would bring, at last, an end to Peronism and its evils; it would transform the economic structure of the country and put an end to the political violence stemming, as they saw it, from the “terrorism” of the left and internal Peronist feuds.
But Cox soon realized that something very different was taking place. At cocktail parties, in calls from the Herald’s readers, in conversations with military sources, he started to hear about people being kidnapped and “disappeared.” The first confirmation came from an English expatriate couple whose son had been abducted by a squad of policemen in the middle of the night and later found dead with signs of having been tortured.
Far-right factions within the government, he concluded, had adopted the methods of the left-wing “terrorists.” It had become, he deplored, “another terrorism.”
While praising the economic plan and other aspects of the military administration, the Herald ran front-page stories about disappearances. Those articles saved lives: several people “re-appeared.” The Herald was mostly alone among Argentine publications. Strict censorship regulations, as well as arrests and disappearances of journalists, made the Herald reporting a courageous decision.
Herald News editor, Andrew Graham Yool came up with the idea of having the relatives of the disappeared secure habeas corpus writs so that the reports of kidnappings would have an official source. Only one other Argentinean newspaper, La Opinión, followed the Herald in publishing the habeas corpus writs.
As a frequent stringer for U.S. newspapers such as The Washington Post, Cox wrote the first stories about the gatherings of the relatives of the disappeared in front of the Government House to clamor for the truth about their children’s whereabouts. The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo and, later, the Grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo would became world-wide symbols of the fight against state terrorism.
The Herald ‘s newsroom became a meeting point for the relatives of the victims—the only newsroom in which they were welcomed. A few other newspapers occasionally agreed to run lists with the names of the disappeared in the form of “solicitadas,” paid ads. But Cox refused to take money from the relatives.
The Herald became the most reliable source of information about human rights violations in Argentina. The newspaper reached a circulation of 20,000 and gained international prestige. Argentines found in it what they couldn’t find in their Spanish-language publications.
Most journalists in Argentina know Cox’s record. What not everyone knows is the price he and his family paid.
David Cox tells of his father’s severe asthma seizures. Of the mounting threats against him and his family—the children “alternated their route home from school to the apartment, sometimes taking the train and other times riding the bus.” To many in his own world he’d become a “subversive Communist”: “People treat me, I imagine, in the same way they would treat a condemned man,” he lamented in June 1979. He designed mental escape plans from his home and from the newsroom in case they came looking for him.
After three long years of the family’s living in fear, his son Peter, an elementary school student, received a threatening letter containing personal information that only someone close to the family would know. The letter stated that the family had the “option” of seeking exile or they would be “assassinated.” Years later Cox would learn that the informer was a cousin of Maud’s who served in the Navy.
Cox asked General Videla for protection. When Videla argued he couldn’t guarantee his own security, Cox decided to go into exile.
Bit by bit, he realized that it was not just a fraction of the military, as he had previously believed, but the whole government involved in state terrorism.
In the United States, he continued to be an outspoken critic of the human rights violations until 1983, when democracy was restored in Argentina.
It took years for the press, which had praised the dictatorship and omitted most of its crimes, to regain public credibility. The Herald was never again such a fine newspaper. Last year, after a long financial struggle, the U.S.-owned Evening Post Publishing Co. sold the paper to an Argentine entrepreneur of dubious reputation. Almost simultaneously, Cox retired as assistant editor for the Charleston Post and Courier of South Carolina.
Once or twice a year, Cox goes back to Buenos Aires, where he keeps an apartment. I met him there a few times, at afternoon tea parties he organizes to catch up with his Argentine friends and acquaintances. A strange crowd he gathers: Anglo-Argentines, high-society ladies, human-rights advocates, a few young journalists. I first attended a gathering while researching the life of Jacobo Timerman, a legendary Argentine newspaperman of his generation. Many journalists I interviewed at the time argued I needed to understand “the context” in which they had lived to justify their silence. Cox was the living refutation of that argument: he had been able to escape his context.
How extraordinarily rare that is. That is the main importance of Cox’s story. And today, when the ideal of journalistic truth risks becoming old-fashioned and another “war against terrorism” recently opened the way, again, to government-sponsored torture and disappearances, it is as important as it was three decades ago.
Graciela Mochkofsky is a 2008-2009 Nieman Fellow. She is the author of Timerman. El periodista que quiso ser parte del poder (1923-1999), a biography of legendary Argentine journalist Jacobo Timerman (Ed. Sudamericana, 2003) and of three other nonfiction books. She was a political correspondent with major Buenos Aires newspapers and as a freelance feature writer her work has been published in leading Latin American magazines. She teaches journalism at Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires. She wrote this piece for Nieman Reports, which will publish it in the Summer 2009 issue.