tv Maria Hinojosa One-on- One PBS December 5, 2015 4:00pm-4:31pm PST
>> hinojosa: he is called the hero of argentine journalism. as the editor of the buenos aires herald, during the dirty war of the '70s and '80s, he risked his life to report the kidnappings, torture, and murder of thousands of argentines by the military government. award winning journalist robert cox. i'm maria hinojosa. this is one on one. robert cox, you were the editor of the buenos aires herald. you are considered to be, really, the person who saved so many lives in argentina during the dirty war. thank you so much for joining us on our program. >> thank you for inviting me here. >> hinojosa: when you hear that, though, when people say, "you know what?
you and your work as a journalist saved not one or two or dozens-- maybe hundreds of lives during the dirty war," how does that sit with you? >> difficult to deal with, but at the same time a satisfying thing, because that's what i realized that our journalism was doing. it was saving lives. that's why it was so important to us. and to go back now, as i have been able to go back, and to live in argentina or living there for several months a year, and to find people who stop me in the the street and thank me, and to meet people who were held in this terrible esma, this awful torture and killing-- how would you call it?-- in the center of buenos aires... >> hinojosa: which is one of the most extraordinary develop... and that's one of the things that, as i was reading for this
interview, you know, you think of world war ii and it was like, well, that was perhaps a long time ago. what happened in argentina was happening in the 1970s, literally historically right around the corner. and it's like, "oh my god, how could they be torturing, killing disappearing, people?" i mean, did you kind of realize everything that was happening? >> yes. >> hinojosa: you did? >> not everything, it was impossible to know everything, but i was fortunate in that they arrested me. unfortunately for them, fortunately for me, i wasn't taken to one of the places where i would have been tortured routinely, an appalling torture, and killed. but they took me to what was then the police headquarters, an annex of the police headquarters, and i had a chance to be taken inside, and i saw their sign. when i was taken in, stripped, taken in, the first thing you see is a huge swastika, enormous swastika, covering a whole wall. and there was nazi nacionalismo.
>> hinojosa: what year are we talking about, when you were arrested? >> that was in '78. >> hinojosa: so 1978, in the capital of argentina, you know, an advanced, modernized country, and in the police headquarters, you have a swastika and nazi nacionalismo. >> yes, exactly. >> hinojosa: and you actually went to the president at that point. >> i went to ask to see the president, and i said he should go there with a bucket of whitewash and whitewash that wall. if he didn't... well, i said, "what would you imagine, how a jew would feel if he was taken there, somebody who was jewish was taken there and sees that? >> hinojosa: and what did he say? >> well, he didn't see me that time. i saw him on two other occasions, but that time his press man, who was a navy captain, a high-ranking naval officer, just laughed and said, "he won't do that." and of course he didn't. and that was really the problem, he was a coward.
if he hadn't been a coward, he could have stopped it. he could have stopped it. >> hinojosa: this is a time of military dictatorship in a country that knew democracy, and in that time about 30,000 people disappeared. desaparecidos. and you were living, at that moment, as a journalist. what made you, basically, not be fearful in saying, "this is what is happening in argentina, there is a dirty war, and this military government is disappearing people"? what made you be able to say that without fear? >> well, i had to find out, to begin with. so, i was fortunate. first of all, i had owners who were in the united states. the newspaper, by one of those strange... was purchased by the united states. and they just said, "you do your job." and i went up to... the president of the company said i could decide to do what needed to be done, so i became a reporter again. i wasn't known at that time. the newspaper was not well-known.
it was a small community newspaper for the english speaking... >> hinojosa: and you were just hearing these stories, you were hearing stories of... >> well, i worked as a correspondent, too, and so i met people. people were so desperate, they were trying to find somebody who would help them. all they wanted to know was, "where have they taken my son, my daughter, my husband, my wife?" >> hinojosa: but the government had said, the military dictatorship had said, these people were "terrorists" and therefore they were not someone's... >> no, they didn't even do that. there were just nonpeople. they were just people who were taken away at 3:00 in the morning. they were taken away in vans. i remember the swedish ambassador said to me, "it's just like the soviet union." they were taken... there they were taken away in bread vans, and here it was a very similar type of van. so they were taken to these places where they were routinely barbarously tortured, i mean, obscenely tortured. i hear things now. i learned this bit by bit, parcel by parcel, you know, the discovery that where the... you know, this place that
looked like a garage was in fact a secret prison and a secret torture chamber. that this very handsome, beautiful building in the center of buenos aires, close to the major football statium in the middle of what is buenos aires' equivalent of the bois de boulogne, the beautiful palermo gardens, is this horrific place where they practice mind control, where they try to... and where they systematically murdered people by taking them away after they had decided that they were going to kill them. there was no trial or anything like that. and they were taken off in planes or in helicopters, and they were doped, stripped, and thrown into the sea. >> hinojosa: so explain... take us for a second, robert, into argentina, you know, 1975, 1976, for example. what... everything looked normal, right?
but... >> well, no, it wasn't normal. we could tell that things were building up. we actually published the numbers of deaths every so often on the front page. it was aware there was a kind of underground civil war going on. >> hinojosa: did people call it that, though? >> no, they didn't. >> hinojosa: these terms that, now that we can use, that you can use. >> you had a moment of enormous exhortation on the part of young people, and it was partly, you know, the youth revolution that erupted in paris and in the united states, and a lot of idealistic young people. and in argentina, thousands of them were led to their deaths by people who were very, very determined to take over the government if they could. i don't think there was any chance of that ever happening, but the military were able to terrify people so much. terrorism does terrible things to people-- it stops them thinking. >> hinojosa: fear does a lot, right?
>> yeah, yeah, exactly. i'm going back next month to give evidence in the trial of the people at esma, which is this terrible torture chamber. and in this case, it's because of two french nuns that were kidnapped, taken away. because we managed to raise an outrcy about it, the navy tried to pretend that they had been kidnapped by the terrorists, and they staged a photograph, which... the nuns managed... in bad french, managed to get the news out that they were, in fact, kidnapped by the navy. and i'm going back to give evidence in that case. the problem at that particular time was that, you know, we knew what was happening, but we had to be able to put it in the paper in a way that the military couldn't quite say, and use it
as an excuse to close us down or something like that. that was the difficult part of it. >> hinojosa: so you're in argentina, you're a journalist who's basically been trained in the british school, and suddenly you have a military government that is basically saying what you can and can't write. and as a journalist you're saying... you know, there were many journalists who said, "okay, well, that's the rule, the law of the government." what did you say? >> we said to them, when they called us up and said that from now on you're not allowed to report what is being found in the street, you're not allowed to report people missing, you're not allowed to report any gun battles, we said, "well, put it in writing for us." they sent it to us in writing, but with no signature or anything like that. so we decided that we would go ahead and report as much as we could, because nobody else was doing it. that was one of the reasons. it was so important.
from the very start, one realized the most terrible things were happening there, and the argentine people were not being informed about it. and so this small newspaper, tiny english community newspaper, english language community, with lots of international readers and lots of argentine readers, and the newspaper had a reputation for telling the truth... they still say it in argentina. they say it's the newspaper that reports in english what the other newspapers cover up in spanish. so there was a realization that this was a tradition that we were continuing. and so i went out to become a reporter again, to find out what was going... what was actually happening. i couldn't send anybody out to do it. so i'd go to the funerals. and my wife came with me. when we went, we heard things like that they're burning bodies at night. >> hinojosa: oh, you have a chilling story about that. there were rumors, as these things go, that they were burning bodies at night. and you did what a good reporter does, right? >> my wife came with me, and she looks back now and she said,
"how could i have done it? because i left the children." you know, she didn't leave the children, because there was somebody else in the house too, but she was with me on this. it was... you know, it was just an extraordinary situation to be in, but it was so important, because more and more one realized that if we could get into the newspaper that somebody had been taken away at 3:00 in the morning or something, if we could get the name in and if we could establish a connection that would embarrass the goverment, that they'd... you know, they'd gone to school in new york or something like that or they'd gone to france or something like that, that very thing could save a life. one would meet the people afterwards and they wouldn't dare say anything about it at that time, but now i can talk to people about it. >> hinojosa: did you feel... when you were making these decisions to put this in your newspaper, did you feel at every turn, "i am making an important, historical decison at this moment?"
or did you just say, "you know what? i have a newspaper to run, and these things are happening, and i just need to put the facts out there"? >> no, i said to myself, "i've i've got to do my job. i've got to pretend that everything is normal." i didn't keep notes, i reported what i reported, i tried to think of as many ways as possible of getting the truth out, and also, really, giving lectures to the military about what they were doing, and saying to them, "you can't treat these wonderfully courageous women"... and i often wonder what would have happened if they hadn't come forward. you know, the maternal instinct, i saw this maternal instinct. they said, "we want to know where our children are, that's all we're asking. where are they?" and so i would argue with the generals about that. i said, "you're going to lose against them." i mean, trying to, you know, get them to see what they were up to. >> hinojosa: it was really extraordinary that you would actually... because it's as if you had the highest beliefs of the military. that if you said, "look, people are worried, they're pointing
their fingers at you," that they would do the right thing. it's like you believed that they would do the right thing. >> i did, to begin with, because there had been, you know, military crews in argentina from 1930 onwards, and i'd lived in argentina since 1959, and i saw 32 attempted coups against frondizi, who was finally thrown out, i think on the 33rd. many, many coups. and the military were looked upon... there was... you know, i hesitate to say that to you who were born in mexico, but they would say, you know, an argentine revolution is less violent than a mexican wedding. that's what argentines said to each other. now, at the same time, things were happening all that time. there was a really terrible threat of terrorism. i mean, there were bombs every day, there were kidnappings, there were assassinations. >> hinojosa: and there was violence from... when you read about this, it's like, oh my god, you didn't know if it was because you were despised and you were labeled. >> i was the voice of imperialism at that time. >> hinojosa: you were seen from the left and from the right as
somebody who was really an enemy. >> yeah, then i became a communist, you know, a dangerous communist. but, you know, what i take out of this is the importance of journalism. you can't imagine what it's like to live in a country where people are not being told what's happening, because the military, do you see, could control television, they could control radio. they couldn't control the newspapers, but the major newspapers, with some exceptions, decided to go along with the military. and in some cases, to the very end, believing that what the military was doing was right. >> hinojosa: this is a term that, i think now more people in the united states have come to understand. desaparecidos, the disappeared. tell us what happened, because you lived through this when all of a sudden, in your offices of a newspaper, people are then showing up. what happened, what did it look like? >> well, the first thing that happened was, i didn't realize
to begin with that the desaparecido, the idea of disappearing people, i mean, making them nonpeople, killing them and then disposing their body in such a way that they would no longer exist, taking away their very existence, their independ... i didn't realize that until i... by then i'd become important in argentina. i was no longer a little fly that you could squash. you know, i was a bigger fly. and for some reason or other, videla, who was a... >> hinojosa: the president. >> the president, the dictator. he was a very shy man, and to begin with people loved him. they called him the pantera rosa, you know, the pink panther, because he was a funny, sort of... you know, like that, very military, his way. and for some reason or other, he invited me, with just three other journalists, to talk to him. like we're talking now, in an annex, not in a big office or anything like that. we talked, it was very pleasant, and he wore a civilian suit, and he was very pleasant, very nice. and i sat there, and these other
people asked questions, and i thought, "i just can't go on anymore." i said, "but president videla, people are still disappearing!" with that, he changed. he was furious. and then, unfortunately, a most... you know, an admired journalist broke in and said, "well, you have to realize, like julius caesar, there are times when there are things that you have to do that you have to do and you can't talk about them." so from that moment on, i realized that this was... it was a policy of disappearing. so what we were trying to do was to break the silence about it, because people denied it. i had people who came down from the united states, people who'd been living... argentines who'd been living abroad. they'd come to me and say, "i went to plaza de mayo." and this is true. it sounds impossible, but you're in a mad situation in argentina at that time. he said, "well, i went to the square, the plaza de mayo, and i asked a policeman, 'where are the madres de plaza de mayo?'"
they called them then the locas, the mad women. >> hinojosa: the crazy women. >> and he said, "and the policeman told me there's no such thing." he said, "why are you publishing all this stuff?" and we had, you know, readers who stopped their subscription. at the same time we built up a readership of people who realized that we were the only newspaper that was consistently doing its upmost to warn, first of all, the military that what they were doing was just absolutely unacceptable from every point of view, because they never thought for a moment of putting people on trial. only recently did i discover that they never even worked out exactly what they were going to do, because they hadn't worked it out, they just thought you could dispose of people. and one of their civilian advisers told me, "well, what you do with terrorists"-- because the word "terrorists," they became nonpeople, everybody became a terrorist who was opposed to the government-- "what you do with them is, they're like stones-- you pick them up and you drop them into a bottomless well." it's unbelievable now to believe
that people could think like that, but very educated people did think like that, except of course i now know why what happened in germany happened, because i lived through a very similar situation in argentina. >> hinojosa: and what is it? i mean, is it that people, decent, educated people, put blinders on? we don't want to see? >> yes, exactly that. exactly that. they refuse to see what they don't want to see. and if you don't have newspapers, if you don't have the media telling you it's happened, you can believe it's not happening, even if you see it with your own eyes. >> hinojosa: what do you think gave rise to the fact that all of this could happen? was it fear of the other? was it the fact that there seemed to be chaos? and i'm just wondering, as you... because now you live here in this country. and with all of this perspective, what kind of stays with you? i mean, all of your stories have stayed with me in a way that is quite profound, just preparing for this interview. but again, you lived through it. so as somebody who is watching
the world, are there things that are happening that you're just saying, "oh my god," you know, "this surgence, resurgence of intolerance, this language of fear, the language of war and terrorists"... >> yes, very much so. i mean, one suffers with it. but at the same time, there is such a difference. and i do say this through argentine eyes. in argentina at that time, nobody dare talked about it, or nobody wanted to talk about it, because there were people who really believed it doesn't matter what the military do, it has to be done. and they... people were frightened, and they had every reason to be frightened, and also military propaganda was turning, you know, pretty bad people into absolute monsters. and of course, later on, the funny thing is-- well, it's not funny, it's just pathetic, horrific-- that the people who set out to deal with the monstrosity of terrorism from the left became themselves
monsters, tremendous monsters, who decided that they could decide who lived and died. >> hinojosa: you know, the use of the word "courage"... and people say you were so courageous in speaking out. did you realize... you know, was every day for you, "i'm going to do a courageous act," or where did you find that ability to do what you had to do? >> no, i just decided i had to do my job, unfortunately. >> hinojosa: but you were afraid, no? your family was afraid. >> yeah, i was afraid, but i got over it. i mean, and this sounds crazy, because people never believe me, but it's absolutely true. i went out every day expecting to be killed. and when i got back in the evening and i wasn't, it was fine. and then i went out the next day expecting to be killed. and i lived a completely normal life. >> hinojosa: did your wife know this, that you basically were walking out thinking that you could be killed? >> yeah, i think she did, but she... it was difficult, because it wasn't until she herself was about to be kidnapped that she
realized quite how dangerous... i think we both made the same decision that we've got to go on living... her point of view was, we look after the children, we don't let them know too... that was why when we got this threatening letter to my 11-year-old son, it was such a traumatic thing. because we always kept everything... we lived normal lives. i took the bus to work. they would follow me, like in a hitchcock film, and i could laugh, and my wife could laugh, and we decided we were going to live a normal life. we're going to do this. friends deserted us. we'd see friends and they'd cross to the other side of the road. so everybody kind of knew what was happening, because you could see it in the streets. these thugs would go through the streets, you know, smashing cars with the butts of their machine guns, and then you'd see people being lifted up from the streets. but people managed not to believe it because they didn't see it in the newspapers. of course, they didn't see it on television either.
and when you have, you know, when a government is in power in that way, they ordered up documentaries from one of the people who provide television, of violence throughout the world, and they showed those on the... there was just, you know, one major channel and it was run by the military at that time. and so the idea was to give the impression that argentina was an oasis of tranquility in the world, in this world, terrible world that was full of violence. >> hinojosa: even today in argentina, there are people who don't want to talk about this, don't want to label it "the dirty war," don't want to talk about torture and desaparecidos, disappeared. and you have other people who... they're still looking for their children. so can argentina heal, in fact? >> yes, i think it can. i think that countries come out of these appalling situaions, like germany, but it takes so long. we're now 30 years away from,
you know, the end of... well, the start of the horror. it took germany much longer than that to come to terms with it, and argentina's now coming to terms with it because the military are being put on trial, the people who ordered this to happen. and what is horrifying is that these people still will not admit what they did. they still argue as if they were fighting... >> hinojosa: a just war. >> a just war, yes, they actually say that. a war for christianity. the other problem is anti-communism. you know, this was... they believed they were fighting the third world war against communism. and they did not know themselves, i believe, that they were nazis. the other problem, too... the argentine military was trained by the germans, traditionally so. and so they had this nazi mentality and they used nazi methods. >> hinojosa: in the year 1976,
'77, '78. that's pretty horrifying. >> it's horrifying to know that it can happen all over again, that it happened in... argentina is a country that is very similar to the united states in its... it's an immigrant country, there's every nationality in argentina, people get on well, pretty well, and this happened. and it means it can happen anywhere. >> hinojosa: so what is the lesson, robert cox, that you feel all of us need to heed, again, after you lived through a dirty war that actually happened in front of your face. what is the message to us? how should we live our lives? >> the important thing is honest journalism, i think. i mean, in argentina, you had no journalism at that time, and to live in a country without journalism, without people being able to talk to each other all the time... >> hinojosa: so fighting for a free press. >> oh, that's tremendously important. >> hinojosa: and? >> and...
decency. you know, let's talk about human rights and human decency. because what was lacking in argentina was human decency, and i think we might be losing human decency in the united states. by the way people talk, by the way they characterize people. i'm all in favor of, you know, the most strong language that you can use, but not languag that is... seems to be, you know, targeted language, where you realize that people are being... if somebody's looking at some of the things they see, they might feel that, you know, it's okay to go out and get a gun. >> hinojosa: robert cox, for all of your work in the name of journalism, and in the name of human rights for all, we really want to thank you for everything, and we're so glad that you're here and that your family is safe.
- [voiceover] funding for "overheard" with evan smith is provided in part by: mfi foundation, improving the quality of life within our community. also, by hillco partners, a texas government affairs consultancy. and by the alice kleberg reynolds foundation. - i'm evan smith, he's an acclaimed actor, best known for his work on the hbo series, "the wire" and "treme." his memoir, "the wind in the reeds" has just been published. he's wendell pierce, this is "overheard." (interview excerpts) - let's be honest, is this about the ability to learn? or is this about the experience of not having been taught properly? how have you avoided, what has befallen other nations in africa and-- - you could say that he made his own bed, but you caused him to sleep in it. - no, you saw a problem, and over time, took it on. - let's start with the sizzle, before we get to the steak. are you going to run for president? - just got an 'f' from you, actually