December 12, 2013
Interview: Robert CoxSunday, September 15, 2013
‘We should never forget that this is still a wounded country’
Robert Cox, the legendary editor of the Buenos Aires Herald forced into exile during the last military dictatorship, has been in Argentina intermittently during the last three decades. With time and distance to his favour, Cox believes freedom of opinion is one of the main gains the country’s young democracy has achieved but worries information is scarce and democracy is threatened by corruption and certain authoritarian inclinations.
Distorted and partisan information may be one of the reasons why many people cannot reconcile their vision of Argentina with the daily reality of the country. “Some people have lived through all these years in a country that has improved in a lot of ways, but refuse to see it,” says Cox. And he adds, “We should never forget that this is still a wounded country.”
That all brings Cox back to his first and foremost passion: journalism. There is no need to be revolutionary in the job, he recommends, but simply go back to the old vocation of providing information. The guild needs to overcome its political differences and agree to their own sort of truth-based Nunca Más: “Reporters serve society as a whole, not a government or political factions.”
Herald: There have been ups and downs in the last 30 years of Argentina’s democracy, what strikes you as the most positive?
Robert Cox: Freedom of opinion. We still don’t have freedom of information, but we have a fantastic freedom of opinion. That makes Buenos Aires and Argentina an incredible place to be. There’s such a lot of talent here... it is in the media as it is everywhere. Every time I come back to Buenos Aires, it feels like Paris to me. I used to go across to Paris when I was young. It was the time when Paris was really run down and when all the buildings looked scabrous. It was really dirty and old, but still fantastic. I used to go with hard-boiled eggs and tins of sardines, because I had no money. All I could afford was a meal in a students’ place where the food was so bad that I once broke a tooth eating it. Buenos Aires is still Paris to me, when I walk around and I see the things that you all see every day and think nothing of...
There are of course different moments in the history of Paris; does Buenos Aires today feel more like the occupation or the liberation of Paris?
Argentina feels like a free country, but some things that happen make you feel that democracy is still very threatened. I have to keep saying to myself, I believe that the Argentine people will not give up democracy, that they would not accept another repressive government, whatever it is, whether it’s repressive from the right or from the left like Venezuela or Cuba. It’s impossible for me to understand how intelligent people can believe that those two models are acceptable.
And how do you explain that people who you consider intelligent could fall for political models that you believe are totally wrong?
They are actually not totally wrong. But there’s certain sentimentality... pretty similar to the sentimentality of old Communists, who managed to overlook Stalin. I don’t want to do too much exaggeration about this, but I think it’s an ideological thing. There’s a terrible fixture in some people’s brains, I don’t mean just on the left but on the right too. Sometimes I thought that Argentina may be going in the direction of Romania under Ceausescu.
When did you feel that?
Well, when you had the President denouncing people, when you had AFIP looking into people’s lives... Yet most of the time I am trying to fully understand Argentina. And one of the problems which I find is that one realizes the enormous potential the country has, and ends up expecting more than one should. Because ultimately, we should never forget that this is still a very deeply wounded country. I feel that all the time, and I am always conscious of what happened here and in all the ways that it happened. How there were people who were terrified before the military took over, and how they thought the military would solve everything for them, and then proceeded to look the other way. And there are still people who believe that what the military did was necessary and okay. They can’t say it out loud now, which is good. But they do say it in private.
In different shades and scales, do you see some kind of negation in Argentina’s reality today?
No, there are no negations, but there are evasions. When you draw these parallels, they always seem overdrawn, and I don’t want to overdraw them. But for example, during the military time, you were not allowed to talk about human rights. I would mention human rights and people would get furious with me. People who thought that our defence of human rights meant we were Communists, just for using the word human rights. Now I see that a word that is forbidden, for instance, is corruption: the press is not supposed to mention “corruption.” And we are also seeing today a lot of very sharp definitions by journalists which seem to be totally ideological. For journalism it is appalling to be ideological. You can be ideological when you write columns, or when you write editorials, but not when you cover the news... Seeing all these opinions is a great joy, but I’d also like a bit more information.
You just mentioned a certain negation of the word “corruption” but, for instance, Jorge Lanata’s Sunday primetime TV show mostly deals with corruption issues and gets record audiences ?
Yes, and I think it has woken people up. There are things people need to know.
How did your own opinion of the Kirchner era evolve through the years?
I think I was far too idealistic about this government at one point. I’ll be absolutely frank: I was horrified when the Herald would criticize the Kirchner economic policies. Those criticisms didn’t make any sense to me, because I thought what the government was doing did make at lot of sense. Now, corruption is important, and Lanata has exposed corruption. So he has done a very important job, just as Horacio Verbitsky did in the 1990s when he exposed corruption under the (Carlos) Menem government.
Over these past three decades you have been intermittently in Argentina. Was there anything during these years that made you wonder, what has happened to this country?
Argentina has improved enormously in so many ways. Sometimes you get a distorted view of things. I have a lot of friends who only read Página/12 and occasionally pick up Tiempo Argentino and another bunch of friends who only read La Nación (laughs). So to this latter group I have to tell very simple things like, for instance, that the other day I went la comisaría (police precinct) in Avenida Las Heras... and it was fantastic! It’s nothing like the way it used to be. It has flowers, it’s lovely. They were nice, good people. Those guys, you know, they used to be horrendous. I used to go to comisarías to try to get people out of jail. And I can also cite the case of the Immigration Department, which I witnessed firsthand because it took me two years to get my residence back. I enjoyed going to Immigration. I spent many hours there but I enjoyed this whole process. Some people don’t see these things. Some people have lived through all these years in a country that has improved in a lot of ways, but refuse to see it. And I’m convinced that a lot of these people still have some idyllic Argentina in their heads, a place that does not exist (never did in my 54 years with Argentina) except in their minds. Some people don’t live with the real Argentina. And the reality of Argentina, let me insist, is that it is a wounded country not just because of what happened during the military regime but also what happened before the military regime.
And how do you live with the image of the country you had when you first arrived and the reality now?
I have resolved my problem with Argentina by being in love with Argentina. I am actually. When you love something, you just accept whatever happens as it is and enjoy it. So what can you do? (laughs). That was also a little bit my feeling during the military time. It was a similar decision. I used to think, “OK, I’m going to die today, they’re going to kill me today.” And they didn’t, so I felt OK. After that it seems impossible for me to worry about Argentina. But I still worry about the people who live here and are worried.