Argentina is finally celebrating an unsung British hero who three decades ago pitted his tiny English-language newspaper against ferocious generals in order to publicize the fact that tens of thousands of people were being made to "disappear" in concentration camps.
When Army tanks rolled into Buenos Aires on March 24, 1976, to depose the constitutional government of Maria Estela Peron (the widow and vice-president of Argentine strongman Juan Peron who had died in office in 1974) London-born Robert Cox was the editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, a sleepy, century-old English-language daily with a circulation confined to Argentina's "Anglos," the cricket-playing and tea-consuming descendants of immigrants who had arrived in the late 19th century to work on the country's British-built railroads. The new regime imposed strict press censorship and set up secret death camps in which up to 30,000 mostly young opponents of the regime were eventually "disappeared."
The mothers of these victims pleaded for assistance, but none was forthcoming from an Argentine press terrified of military reprisals. In desperation, they turned to the tiny Herald and Cox began publishing stories of the kidnappings on the front page. "I was only doing my job as a journalist," he says. But it proved to be critical because the rest of the Argentine press chose not to bear witness to the crimes. With a populace hungry for news, the Herald's circulation jumped from a few thousand to more than 20,000 copies daily. He managed to save many lives.
"The military kidnapped me and my three daughters," says Maria Consuelo Castaño Blanco, whose husband was an anti-junta Peronist guerrilla. "My father was alerted by neighbors and he went straight to the Herald, there was nowhere else to go." Cox remembers the case clearly. "I persuaded her father to give me photographs of the girls and we put them on the front page, I knew that if I got the information out quickly I could probably save them." Castaño Blanco had been taken to the Campo de Mayo death camp. "They were executing people and about to shoot me next," she says. But because of the Herald story, at the last moment she was pulled from the line and "surfaced" taken to a real prison where she was held under false charges until the return of democracy in 1983. Her daughters, between three and five years old at the time, were left on the doorstep of a neighbor's house after the Herald published their pictures. Her husband's fate remains unknown. "More lives could have been saved if the press in Argentina had acted different," Cox admits.
Having moved to Argentina at the age of 26 from London, Cox married Maud Daverio, an Argentine of mixed Irish-Italian descent. The military coup of 1976 and Cox's crusading journalism would change their lives forever. Cox found himself personally facing the ruling generals, confronting them with photos of their victims and demanding their release, threatening to publish these "disappearances" if the military didn't free the prisoners they denied holding. In response, the generals threw Cox into one of their dungeons, its entrance behind a wall painted with a huge swastika above the proclamation "NAZIONALISM." Cox survived that incarceration, with a little help from the British Embassy, but his days in Argentina were numbered.
Threats against his family forced him to flee the country in the last days of 1979 to save himself and his wife and five children from the ire of the junta. "I never feared for my own life," says Cox today. "It seemed natural they would come after me, but when they threatened my children and tried to kidnap my wife, then I realized I had to go." "I remember that one of the first words I learned to spell was "d-e-s-a-p-a-r-e-c-i-do"," says Cox's son David, referring to the Spanish word for someone who has been made to "disappear." David, now a journalist with CNN, was only nine years old when the coup took place. "At night I could hear father in the kitchen punching out stories on his typewriter that always included the word desaparecido."
By then, the White House had taken notice of Cox's reporting. U.S. President Jimmy Carter, who took office in 1977, sent his specially-appointed Undersecretary for Human Rights, Patricia Derian, to Buenos Aires to meet with Cox and to demand explanations from the nation's murderous generals. That helped mount international criticism of the junta, helping to isolate it. When the generals lost the 1982 Malvinas war to Margaret Thatcher's British military, which came to oust Argentine troops that had invaded the U.K.'s Falklands outpost, it propelled the regime towards a collapse the year after.
In the meantime, the Cox family settled in Charleston, S.C., where Robert Cox recently retired from his post as deputy editor at the Post & Courier. But the enforced exile left deep scars that are only now beginning to heal. He felt unable to tell his own story, leaving it to his son David, who published a biography of his father, Dirty Secrets, Dirty War, in 2008. Finally published in Spanish translation this month in Argentina, it has given Cox and his family a chance to return to their former home and receive acclaim for forgotten heroism. "My father couldn't write this book because of the guilt he felt at not being able to save more lives," says David Cox.
Cox had visited Argentina ocassionally since the fall of the Junta but he was a little known footnote in the country's history, ignored for the most part by a media that remained ashamed of its own shortcomings during the generals' so-called "dirty war" against Argentina's citizenry. It was as if his continued existence was a reprimand to them that an individual could summon up the courage to speak out against crime even when the rest of the world chose overwhelming silence.
This has finally changed, says Cox now in Buenos Aires for the presentation of his son's book. A tall, good-humoured man who speaks with a melifluous British accent, Cox, 76, says, "It's great to be back in a reality in which I exist, because it was so hard to establish what happened... and to find people who say to me, 'You saved my life.' This is overwhelming."
Welcoming Cox this week was Jorge Fontevecchia, owner of the media group Perfil, who was loudest among the Englishman's champions in Argentina through the years. "I owe my life to Cox," explains Fontevecchia, who was kidnapped as a young journalist in 1979 by a military squad and taken to the Olimpo death camp. Fontevecchia, thanks to Cox's swift reporting, was one of the lucky few to have survived Olimpo. "Argentina owes Cox an enormous, if painful, debt of gratitude," said Fontevecchia at the presentation of Cox's biography in Buenos Aires. Says Fontevecchia: "Cox was journalism in its purest form, we Argentine journalists have the duty to imitate his example."