Wednesday, March 24, 2010

A Day of Remembrance

Today marks the 34th anniversary of the coup d'état that ended the government of Argentine President María Estela Martínez ('Isabel') de Perón, on March 24, 1976, and of the start of the nearly eight-year reign of bloody dictatorial horror that followed. This is an excerpt from a book-length work that I am currently writing on my memories of those times, when I was a newsman with the Buenos Aires Herald.

Not Even a Fly

On the eve of the coup that ended Isabel Perón's government and marked the starting point for the bloody 'National Reorganization Process', a little man called Goyena who, officially speaking, was the Herald's 'man in Government House', walked into our already frantic newsroom, said, "Buenas tardes," walked over to where Editor Robert Cox was reading cables as they chattered out of the teletype machine, and in a loud clear voice announced: "Hello, Chief. I just want you to know that not even a fly is stirring."

Caption: The three members of the Argentine military junta that led the coup on March 24, 1976. Lt. General Jorge Rafael Videla (center), Admiral Emilo Massera (left) and Air Force General Orlando Agosti.

A couple of journalists who heard him guffawed. We had known for some time that a coup was in the offing and by that late hour of the eve of the coup, everybody in the media knew that tonight was the night. Cox just turned slowly and looked at the bearer of this news with an expression of something akin to awe on his face. He kept staring at him for a brief moment and the question on his lips was surely, "How in bloody hell can you hang around the Government House newsroom all day and have no idea what's going on?" But he didn't ask it. Always the English gentleman, he took the little envelope full of official press releases Goyena extended to him and said, "Thank you, Goyena. Thank you and good night."

Goyena, with the serenity of a simpleton said, "Good night everyone," and was off for home, mission accomplished.

But his reaction was not a lot different than that of the rest of the country. Since Perón's death, the country had been divided into a them-and-us mentality by which there was the government and its entourage that ruled and the people that did not and the trick was simply to try to avoid becoming a victim of the government. People lived their lives despite the government and sought ways to get around whatever ridiculous new action the State decreed while avoiding the eyes of its thugs that randomly roamed the streets in plate-less Ford Falcon Sprints, four or five to a car, door-to-door goons with sawn-off pump shotguns bristling from the windows. All they needed to change your whole life forever — or to end it — was an excuse and any excuse would do, even looking at them the wrong way. They reminded me of the gang of bandoleros in the western classic "The Magnificent Seven", heavily armed, ignorant scum that terrorized a little Mexican town until the city fathers finally had had enough and scraped up sufficient money to hire seven very scary American gunslingers to settle the score. Except that these guys were terrorizing a whole major city, an entire country, and had a whole government, the police and, yes, even the Army behind them. You weren't going to stop them by hiring Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen and company, no matter how fast they were on the draw. So the trick, as I say, was to avoid them.

Blending In

I had learned my lesson early on, some time before the coup, when I was still quite green. My wife and I had gone to a movie and when we came out of the cinema on stylish Avenida Santa Fe, one of these sinister Ford Falcons, heavy with goons and hardware was coasting slowly along the curb. All of the occupants but the driver were looking toward the crowd coming out of the cinema. The two closest to the curb leered out the front and back passenger windows at the girls in the crowd. I realized that they were 'cruising chicks' more than patrolling the streets. It wasn't as if they really believed they could pick one up on their own merit, but so what? They had the power to pick up whomever they pleased. If they saw a young woman they 'fancied' they could always take her in for 'questioning' and if her male companion protested, he could always end up 'resisting arrest'. At any rate, when I noticed that the two on the curb side of the car were looking my wife up and down while making barely veiled rude gestures and noises, I stopped, turned and stared at them as coldly as I could. I don't know what on earth I was thinking, but I was young, not long out of the U.S. Army, with my head full of fatuous North American ideas about citizen's rights, about the invulnerability of American citizens abroad, about never backing down no matter what the odds, and so I tried to stare the thugs down.

Well, that obviously didn't work. My wife was tugging at my sleeve and warning me in English to move on. "Don't look at them! Come on, let's go!" she hissed. But it was too late. All but the driver were suddenly out of the car, shotguns at port arms or 9-millimeter pistols in hand, hustling me up against a store front.

"Documento!" one of them shouted as they spun me around and muscled me up against the wall face first.

"He doesn't understand anything," Virginia was saying in Spanish. "He's American. He doesn't understand what's going on. He didn't know you were policemen. He's American," she kept saying more than anything else, I think, for the benefit of the little crowd that was gathering on the sidewalk around us, perhaps so that if we got hauled away, someone might call the American Embassy. I don't really know. It all happened very fast and was quite confusing but I didn't have an Argentine permanent residence ID yet and handed them my U.S. passport. It seemed to cool them down somewhat, as did the crowd of witnesses on busy Santa Fe, who were waiting around to see the outcome. After making us stand there for a few minutes several of the plainclothesmen started slowly making their way back to the car. On their way they addressed the bystanders saying, "What are you looking at? Move on! Circulate! Nothing's happening here."

Nothing was ever happening anywhere but things happened every day and when they did, people disappeared or died.

The one who remained, turned me back around and stood toe to toe with me, obviously looking at the full beard I had only recently grown after leaving my job at the hotel, where beards had been strictly forbidden. He got close enough to me that I could smell his sweat and said, menacingly, "If I see you with that beard again, I'll burn it off. Get rid of it or we might mistake you for a guerrilla." He slapped my passport up against my chest. I took it and he turn on his heel and went back to the car, which roared off up the avenue…

The trick, I learned, was to blend in, not to draw attention to yourself. If you did that and remembered the details of what you saw, you could be a good reporter. If you didn't, you could 'disappear'.

Coup d’État

I was reminded of that frightening personal experience on my way home that night in 1976, after I had headlined the March 24 Herald 'Tanks Roll Toward Buenos Aires' and put the paper's coup edition to bed. By the time that I saw the paper off, and hit the street, Isabel Perón had already been arrested and flown away from Government House by helicopter. That had happened at half past midnight, less than an hour before the paper was coming off the press and I left for home with a copy in my briefcase.

Already the downtown streets were firmly in the grasp of the Armed Forces. There were troops and trucks and jeeps on practically every corner. Soldiers in full combat gear, and slung with light automatic weapons were stopping cars and pedestrians and checking their identity papers by the beams of their flashlights. Those who had apparently failed to identify themselves properly were being herded aboard 5-ton trucks fitted with benches in their beds and with their back ends covered by canvas tarps. The Army had also commandeered some city buses that were being loaded with prisoners. In my young mind, it was a scene that was far too reminiscent of the World War II movies I had grown up on, in which the Nazis would raid an entire neighborhood, loading Jews, Gypsies and other 'undesirables' onto trucks similar to these, to drive them off to God-knew-where for extermination.

I was on foot, unable to find any sort of transport to take me home, and while it was an incredible opportunity to observe the movement in the streets in the early moments of the military takeover, I couldn't help also having an intuitive sense of sheer survival that kept urging me to cut and run in panic. The term 'bloodless coup' didn't at all prepare one's mind for the overwhelming military force that was out in the streets and the effect was chilling to say the least. I remember feeling glad that I was wearing a suit and tie and looking as respectable as possible and that I had my identity and permanent residence documents in order. I ended up having to make my way on foot for at least 20 blocks, during which I was stopped and frisked and asked for my papers no fewer than four times, also having to show my Herald ID to back my story about being out in the wee hours because I was a journalist and had just got off work. But I was eventually able to slip onto the side streets and catch a rogue cab that took me the rest of the way to my mid-town neighborhood.

State of Siege

In the frightening days of lawlessness in high places prior to the coup, people liked to console themselves with the thought that it couldn't happen to them. That if the stayed clear of 'politics' they would be safe. (Hence the brilliant line of a character accused of leftist sympathies in a novel by the late Osvaldo Soriano, who lived out the dictatorship, like many other Argentine artists and intellectuals, in exile: "I've never been involved in politics," says Soriano's character. "I've always been a Peronist"). And when someone went missing whose disappearance they couldn't explain, people sought to ease their own minds by, saying: "Well, if they disappeared, they must have been 'into something'." If that was a common attitude in the pre-coup days, it became broadly prevalent after the March 24, 1976 takeover.

The fact was, however, that the process by which people in Argentina 'disappeared' in those days of the 'state of siege' was vicious and almost random. And it turned even more random with the advent of military rule. Long before that time, Cox and (then-Herald news editor Andrew) Graham-Yooll had already begun to keep lists and to receive relatives of the missing at the Herald offices in order to document the cases. They still believed in the courts. And we all continued to cling to Justice as our last hope throughout the nearly eight years that the military dictatorship lasted. The judicial system was indeed flawed, but it was better than nothing and could sometimes be used to the disadvantage of the country's rulers, who were otherwise untouchable.

In order to at least vaguely protect themselves and the newspaper, Bob and Andrew required that the relatives who appeared at the paper to state their missing family members' cases file a writ of habeas corpus with the court before the Herald would publish a line about it. It was a tenuous maneuver at best under the state of siege in which all constitutional guarantees were suspended, but it was a way to at least be able to claim that the case was official and, thus, public knowledge. The Herald could avoid being accused of publishing false reports, since the information was culled from public court records. It didn't matter that, in point of fact, the process worked in reverse. Indeed, sometimes the filing of the habeas corpus functioned as the peg on which our story hung. Furthermore, it was a way of making the State, through the courts, recognize that people were going missing, even if nobody was about to do anything about it. The Herald, then, without really wishing to, became more than just a newspaper. It gradually turned into a kind of ombudsmen for the missing and their families, or at least a sort of 'scorekeeper' in what was to become known as the 'Dirty War'.

Cox never saw it that way, however. I once said something to him about the Herald's being 'a century-old institution'. He winced and said, "The Herald is a newspaper, not an institution. It's our job to report and if we can't do that, we might as well pack it in. But please don't call it an institution, Dan. Every time something gets called an institution, it's because it's already dead."

I stood corrected and on deeper thought, took that as my own credo: Who was the government, any government, to tell me what I could or could not say, if it was the truth? If I was a journalist, a chronicler, a writer, I was duty-bound to tell the truth as I saw it and report what I knew. Otherwise I had best shut up altogether.

Truth, obviously, was in very short supply both before and after the coup. The three-man Junta, made up of Army General Jorge Rafael Videla, Air Force General Orlando Agosti and Admiral Emilio Massera of the Navy, led the country to believe that they were a stopgap. Videla, leader of the strongest force and soon-to-be-president of the country, acted as the official spokesman for the Junta, assuring local and foreign journalists alike that his government was pro-democracy. He said that the situation had been intolerable under Isabel, that democracy had been severely endangered and that the purpose of the Junta was to shore up the country's damaged institutions, repress subversive activities and return power to the people's elected representatives, where it belonged. Considering the dire and dangerous times in which the country had been living prior to the coup, this sounded highly reassuring to practically everyone, and particularly to major local and international businesses. It was precisely what the country needed, big businessmen contended — to get reorganized, to change its faltering image, to get serious and buckle down, to get the trains running on time, so to speak.

Videla himself was, he suggested, a professional soldier and a patriot, a man bound to serve his country in any way he could. And the sooner he could do this job and get back to barracks, the better.

That was, basically, in fact, what Videla told Cox when the Herald editor had a first meeting with him. Bob approached Videla early on about the question of the 'missing'. Seeking to set the tone, Bob suggested that now that there was an organized, pro-democratic government in place, it might well be time to start bringing formal charges against the prisoners the government was taking and giving them a proper trial instead of continuing with this barbaric practice of making them 'disappear', a tactic that was obviously not democratic or even legal in any real sense. Failing this, he suggested, they should surely be released. Furthermore, something had to be done about what had become institutionalized torture as a method of interrogation for even the most circumstantial of detainees. Videla indicated that he was not in agreement with such tactics either. But of course, he claimed, “One gives orders and they are not always carried out in the manner that one might wish.”

Looking back, it was a lame, cynical, repulsive and outlandish answer, but one which, accompanied by assurances that everything possible was being done to remedy the situation, seemed to Cox, in those early days of the 'National Reorganization Process' to be sincere. I recall his telling me, when I asked how Videla had seemed to him, that the general appeared to be a basically decent and rather self-effacing fellow. I remember him describing Videla as somewhat cartoonish, rather like a rabbit that you could almost imagine lowering its ears in submission when you talked nicely to it or stroked its head.

"You know," said Cox, "that they call him the Pink Panther behind his back." And we both laughed about the moniker, because there was something about Videla's small head, thin neck, slicked-back hair and large rectangular moustache that indeed made him resemble that sympathetic cartoon character. Or at least it did until we all got to know him better. From then on, everything about him would start to look sinister and insincere.

It wasn't long before Cox learned to read the 'good cop' image that Videla tried to cultivate as a complete sham. He was clearly a cruel and ruthless dictator and this was not the benign caretaker regime that it had made itself out to be. In a subsequent meeting, feeling duped and angry, Cox told the general so. When el señor presidente started in again on his old saw about how orders were given in one sense and were carried out in another, Bob said that it was simply not an acceptable response anymore. People continued to be torture and killed and others were either being arrested by the score and held without formal charges or they were 'disappearing' altogether. As the visible head of a military government, Videla obviously had control over how the orders were carried out and if he wasn't doing anything about murder, torture and kidnapping, Cox indicated, it was because he bloody-well didn't want to.

Not Even a Mention

Obviously the mood of that meeting deteriorated quickly and from then on, Cox's contacts with the Junta were most frequently limited to the kind of calls newspapers got now and then in which the Editor would be 'invited' to 'have a cup of coffee' with this or that official. These were not social visits but thinly veiled reprimands for publishing items that displeased the country's rulers.

Perhaps the most blatant of these 'invitations' was from Admiral Emilo Massera's office. The Herald's editor was summoned for a time late in the afternoon. After cooling his heels in the waiting room for a very long time, Cox finally became impatient and told the admiral's assistant that he really couldn't wait much longer, since he had a paper to get out. The assistant took the complaint to Massera and returned telling Bob that the admiral would see him now. When Cox was led into the Junta member's sprawling office, he found several other men sitting in front of Massera's desk, evidently in the midst of a meeting. Nicknamed 'Popeye', obviously because he was 'a sailor man', but more because of the stubborn set of his lantern jaw, Massera forewent all niceties and said that he had just wanted to tell Cox personally that he didn't want him ever to mention him in the paper again. I don't think Bob was ever sure exactly what it was the admiral was upset about, but the demand obviously took him aback. He told Massera that it was an impossible request, that as a member of the Junta that was governing the country, his name was bound to come up quite frequently.

"Not even a mention, Cox," the admiral repeated. And then, as if he had just given an order to one of his subordinates, he dismissed Bob, letting him find his own way to the door.

Obviously, after hearing this story from Cox, we did indeed mention Massera's name. Probably quite a lot more than we might have otherwise. As we learned more and more about the Navy's role in the ever-increasing disappearances, it wasn't hard to figure out why this sinister 'Popeye' sought anonymity. There was never a more blatant symbol of the raw and unrepentant repression wrought by 'The Process' than the Navy Mechanics School, better known as the ESMA, an impressive public building on one of the most stylish avenues in the city. There military trucks repeatedly unloaded nameless scores of prisoners who would pass through the ESMA's doors, never to be seen again. It was clear proof that the Junta knew exactly what was going on, despite President Videla's repeated claims of ignorance. And it was proof too that Massera, at least, couldn't have cared less who knew long as they didn't mention it.