Friday, April 24, 2009

War Stories 2: Personal Chronicles from a 10-Week War

Falkland (Malvinas) Islands Conflict: April 2 – June 14, 1982

This is the second part of an on-going literary piece about the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands conflict of 1982. It is a collection of snapshots of certain moments during that confrontation, when I was acting editor-in-chief of the English-language daily, the Buenos Aires Herald, as culled from my personal memories and journals from those days. In remembrance of those times and how we lived them on a day to day basis, I will be publishing subsequent installments of these ‘War Stories’ from now until June, the month that the South Atlantic Conflict ended. This, then, is the second in a series.

Our British Editor, James Neilson makes a surprise return from Montevideo. It’s only 11 a.m. and my regular hours at the paper as News Editor are flexible, but usually from around 4 or 5 in the afternoon until midnight or one in the morning. Sometimes more, sometimes less, but these are extraordinary times with a war brewing, and I’m practically living at the Herald.

Jim is furious with me. Fuming. His eyes are narrowed, his pipe is clenched tight in his teeth and he is red in the face. He’s holding the paper signed by him placing me in charge of the newspaper and of policy in his absence, the paper by which I have become interim Editor-in-Chief. He has removed it from the bulletin board where I pinned it up in the editorial department as soon as he decided to hightail it to Montevideo to sit out the war.

Up to now, we’ve always had a clear understanding. When threats from the military regime ran former Editor Robert Cox out of the country three years ago, Neilson was Associate Editor and was promoted to Editor (with Cox remaining on the masthead for some time as Editor-in-Chief “in absentia”). Back then, in 1979, Jim asked me to be his second, to run the editorial department and do a share of the writing on the editorial and op-ed pages. Up to now, it has gone like clockwork: I run the editorial department, do the public relations stuff, sort out the everyday problems and write when I can; he shuts the door to his office and writes his columns and five of the unsigned editorials each week (I write the other two, plus a regular business column, plus an irregular social issues column, plus whatever other op-eds I have time for) and takes final responsibility for setting policy. We work well together and don’t get into each other’s way. We are – as my commanding officer back in the Army used to be fond of saying – familiar but not chummy. We respect one another. We have a good working relationship and we share certain key convictions. Period.

But momentarily, the relationship has soured. Neilson feels hurt, angry, upset. He feels I’ve tried to displace him, steal his job. Why, I ask him, does he think I asked him to sign that paper in the first place. He says he figured I wanted to keep it on hand in case anybody questioned my authority. I say if he knew me at all, he would know that I don’t work that way. That would be the understated English way of doing it. I’m a pushy, aggressive, frontal Yank. I don’t want the question of who’s in charge even arising. If he wants quiet and discreet, as he should already know after years of working with me, he’d best get some other sucker to fill the volatile slot of Editor of an English-language daily in Buenos Aires during a war between Argentina and Britain.

“They’ll be coming after you next,” he says, rather peevishly and, I feel, rather threateningly.

“That’s comforting,” I say.

“Americans, I mean.”

“A risk I’ll have to take,” I say, shrugging. “I live here and I’m a newsman. Besides, it’s different for me. I don’t have kids. You do.”

“Well, I still set policy, Dan” he says, as if to reaffirm the fact.

“Of course you do, as long as you set it.”

He still looks singularly pissed off.

“Look, Jim,” I say, “relax, I’m not after your job. I just don’t want to get the paper thrown into my lap and have my hands tied.”

“But I set policy!” He insists.

“Like I say, as long as you set it. Are you staying?”

“I can’t. The family’s over there,” he points toward the River Plate, which is, basically, a block away, since our offices are half a block from the Customs House and a long block from the waterfront. On the other side of the estuary is Montevideo, where his family is holed up.

“Do you want to run it from there?” I ask. “If you do, fine, but I’ll go back to being just plain News Editor. You write the editorials, you call the shots.”

He shakes his head – a little fiercely. “It wouldn’t work.”

“Okay. All I want is for everybody to know where we stand. And as soon as you leave, that…” I point at the signed document in his hand, “…goes right back up on the board, okay?”

He rather reluctantly hands the paper back to me, but he seems to have understood my point, even if, stubborn Scot that he is, he’s not willing to concede it completely. We brusquely shake hands and wish each other luck, before he is off again, to “cross the puddle” as they say here, for the duration.

Now, after pissing Jim off, I am, unequivocally, on my own for the rest of the war. As if to come to terms with that reality, I stride over to the bulletin board and once again tack up the signed “change of command” document, while Neilson’s footsteps are still echoing on the flight of stairs down from the editorial department to the street.

TTT

Two weeks into the occupation of the islands by several thousand Argentine troops and the British naval task force is definitely on its way. A US news magazine is calling this “a lovely little war” in reference to the anachronistic nature of a conflict that is being staged in someplace as remote as the Malvinas. It’s been so long since anything like this happened that everybody’s caught off-guard, except, perhaps, military strategists and war buffs on both sides, who clearly realize this isn’t going to be the “walkover” that Britain is trying to make it out to be. There are all kinds of strategic problems to consider: After all, the Falklands colony is 8,000 miles from Britain! Walkover? Sounds like one hell of a stroll to me.

All of Britain’s aircraft and vessels – it says here (I mean I haven’t got a clue, other than what I read and I’m reading everything I can get my hands on) – have been created for NATO, in preparation for the possibility of war in Europe, not for fighting an enemy that is already entrenched at the other end of the map. In other words, Britain is no longer equipped as an expansionist imperial power. As the Empire has been downgraded to a Commonwealth, London has shown its good intentions by not “re-tooling” to keep up with the latest in “active offensive” technology. It has become a defensive nation, as has the rest of Europe – with the glaring exception of the Soviet Union – since World War II.

We start getting lessons, in the press and from our own sources, on British-held Islands in the Atlantic. Seems the staging ground for Britain’s planned attack to recover the Falklands will be a place called Ascension Island. Nobody but NASA, which used to use it as a tracking station and the BBC, which has a re-transmitting station there for the overseas service, has heard of the place since World War II, when Britain let the US set up shop with it there to detect possible German naval movements. The fact is that practically nobody in Britain even knows where the conflictive Falklands are, let alone this Ascension place. Surveys run by a couple of newspaprers in England have confirmed this. Where are the Falklands? “Haven’t the foggiest, guv.”

The British are making Acension sound close-by, convenient for purposes of this war, but when I look it up, I find out that it’s a good 3,800 miles from the Malvinas. I look at it on a map and decide that if the world has an anus, it is not, as I had previously surmised, the Falklands, but perhaps Ascension Island, which is, basically, a kind of burned-out volcanic knob sticking out all by itself, smack in the middle of the vast expanse of Atlantic between – sort of – Rio de Janeiro in South America and the coast of Angola in Africa.

But for naval purposes during the Second World War, it served as a kind of floating fuel dump and supply station, and now it is going to serve that purpose again.

Even the British fleet is going to have to refuel and restock there before sailing on to engage the Argentine Navy. I kick myself for never having learned anything about aircraft: I was in the US Army a decade back, but even despite having served my last tour with the Army Air Defense Command in Europe, just never could seem to muster any interest whatsoever in warplanes. I’m pretty sure, however, that there’s nothing out there that could fly, say, eight hours in one direction with a load of bombs on board, drop them on the target and fly eight hours back. I make myself a note to ask our military sources about this.

TTT

Foreign correspondents, stringers and free-lancers anxious to make a name for themselves as war correspondents start showing up in Buenos Aires in droves. Predictably – as in just about any place in the world where trouble is brewing – they set up shop in the Sheraton. One of the first ones to contact me is a guy called Jimmy Burns from the Financial Times. We get together for coffee and he picks my brain about the ins and outs of Argentine politics and the military government. He leads me to believe he is a new arrival, although I later find out he has been around for several months, but just hasn’t “gotten it yet” regarding things a good newsman should have had down pat by that time. This is particularly surprising because he doesn’t have to deal with the language barrier, since, as I will find out later, his father is British but his mother is Spanish and he went to school in Spain and has worked there. Or in other words, he has a better than working knowledge of Spanish that should get him in a lot faster than other British correspondents who are arriving here without a clue and without being able to readily communicate.

We meet several more times in the next few days and I do my best to get him “up to speed”, as I do with any other foreign news person who seeks information and advice from me. When I later read some of the unmitigated bullshit that he writes about me, however, I realize that all he was doing was “getting a handle” on me. His biggest bone to pick with me (although he never says this face to face, in which case he is all “innocents abroad”, acting naïve and playing me for his own purposes) seems to be that I’m not frantically waving a union jack and blindly supporting Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s insistence on going to war. I mean, if the Argentine Junta and this whisky-soused cartoon general, Leopoldo Galtieri, are insane, she’s decided to be twice as insane. She appears to feel that she isn’t being taken seriously by the Junta because she’s a woman and seems to want to show them that if they think that her female condition precludes her from getting into a pissing contest with them, they have another think coming.

I have been editorializing about this, calling on Britain to be the calm voice in this mad affair, to seek intervention by the UN, to call for peacekeeping forces, anything but precipitating a war. Burns, for his part, is obviously subscribing to the wave of outdated but spontaneously revived jingoism that is accompanying Mrs. Thatcher’s thirst for blood as a not-so-secret remedy for flagging confidence in her government at home, and is taking a with-us-or-against-us attitude. As a result, he will eventually picture me in some of the things he writes as having “sold out to the Argentine military government”. This is, of course, a load of crap, as witnessed by repeated, clear messages from the dictatorship in the past three years that they would be glad to see me dead and/or gone.

His unfair criticism bothers me at first, since I was sincere and candid in giving him my help, but then I realize that he’s just another opportunist on the band wagon, down here to wave the flag and get himself a shot at a bestseller. [Although I have no way of knowing it yet, by the end of the war, he will be considered a prestigious “expert” on the Falklands War and will win a Somerset Maugham Non-Fiction Prize for his book about it, while I will only have the bittersweet satisfaction of knowing that, in my case at least, he has proven himself a liar and a fraud].

TTT

Speaking of waving the flag, today there was a bit of comic relief in Plaza de Mayo. Every day lately, the Plaza has looked like a gathering for a major sporting event, with people out there rallying around the Armed Forces, trying to get news about “what the score is”, showing their solidarity with the war effort, lining up to make donations, some even handing over their jewelry and other family heirlooms to help support the cause. It's all pretty disgusting and disquieting, because the British fleet's on the way and something tells me that once it arrives, things won't be pretty.

In the midst of it all, a guy shows up that I know from some of the events in the Anglo community here in Argentina. He is really a character out of a Saki story, one of those Britons of the Empire days in Africa, India or Burma. With his military-cut moustache, Beefeater’s face and build, gin-ruddied complexion and Terry Thomas accent, all he’s missing are a pith helmet and riding crop to make him the perfect caricature of a late 19th-century honorary lord consul far from Queen and home in “The Bloody Argentine”. In point of fact, I’m not at all sure that he wasn’t born right here, like a lot of other Anglo-Argentines that continue to cling to the Empire days in “the forgotten colony”.

There are cops dressed in riot gear everywhere, just in case, because with the war on, sentiments are running high. So it’s difficult to get very close to the front of Government House, where TV cameramen and photo-journalists are standing behind a police barricade filming the scene in the city square. But this guy, “Reggie” is his name, manages to work his way right down front facing the press and with his back to the rest of the crowd.

And just as the crowd starts jumping in place, thousands strong and chanting, “AR-GEN-TINA! “AR-GEN-TINA! “AR-GEN-TINA!, a smiling Reggie unfurls a huge union jack and waving it in the air, starts shouting, “The Falklands are British! The Falklands are British!”

Suddenly, Reggie is surrounded by six huge and heavily armed riot cops. He grins and asks them hopefully, “Are you going to arrest me?”

They disappoint him and say, “No sir, we’re here to protect you.”

TTT

Sunday, April 12, 2009

War Stories: Personal Chronicles from a 10-Week War



This month marks the 27th anniversary of the start of Argentina and Britain’s ten-week war over the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands in 1982. This literary piece is a collection of snapshots of certain moments during that conflict, when I was acting editor-in-chief of the English-language daily, the Buenos Aires Herald, as culled from my personal memories and journals from those days. In remembrance of those times and how we lived them on a day to day basis, I will be publishing subsequent installments of these ‘War Stories’ from now until June, the month that the South Atlantic Conflict ended. This, then, is the first in a series
April - June 1982

I’m in my office at the Buenos Aires Herald early. There are press conferences to cover. I’m also seeing diplomats and military people, other journalists, any contact who might be able to shed some light on this mad thing that is taking place – this impending war that the ‘Proceso’ has precipitated by taking over the Malvinas (Falklands) by force. The US Secretary of State, General Alexander Haig, is said to be on his way down to Buenos Aires from Washington to “mediate”. How on earth, I wonder, is Haig going to mediate? He was Supreme Allied Commander for NATO from 1975 to 1979…NATO!!!

One imagines a mediator is going to be impartial, right? It doesn’t matter who’s in the wrong here (and the Argentine takeover is clearly not the wisest of diplomatic moves, particularly when carried out by an illegitimate, de facto regime) but is rather a question of whether the mediator is someone both sides can trust and from whom they think they’ll get a fair hearing. Haig simply doesn’t fit the profile.

I’ve said this in an op-ed piece and am taking flak for it from the US embassy and friends of Reagan’s White House in the foreign press. Time will prove me right though. Haig’s “shuttle diplomacy” between London and Buenos Aires will quickly break down when it becomes clear he’s simply carrying the British position to Buenos Aires and telling these oh-so-obviously arrogant military men that Margaret Thatcher wants them off her islands or she’ll kick their asses. Their reaction is what could be expected from a band of “macho men” dictators: Tell her to bring it the hell on.

General Haig flies back to Washington and the Iron Lady sends the fleet. So begins a 19th-century war in the dwindling years of the 20th century.
Caption: Dan Newland at the Herald in the days just before the war.

TTT

We’re working as if it were business as usual. But it’s not. The newspaper and magazine distributors are leaving our daily editions stacked on the dock. No trucks are coming to pick us up. No Heralds are on the newsstands.

A few foreign correspondents ask me what’s up. I say, you have to understand the nature of media distribution in Argentina. It’s a monopoly.

There’s an anecdote:

The late chairman of the board of the Herald, Basil Thomson (better known as B.T., a veteran journalist and brilliant humorist, who started in the paper as a copy boy when he was 14, and the editor wore a bowler hat and spats and carried a walking stick), was invited to visit Charleston, South Carolina, when the Charleston Evening Post Company bought a controlling interest in the Herald from B.T.’s family back in the late 1960s.

While he was there, the Post’s distribution division held one of its regular meetings to talk over ideas on how to improve delivery. Since B.T. was there bright and early at the parent company’s headquarters, they asked him if he would like to sit in. B.T. was there quietly listening to the lively discussions and probably thinking how nice it must be to have control over your own distribution, when the manager running the show suddenly said that they were privileged that day to have Mr. Basil Thomson of Argentina with them and asked him, as chairman of the Herald, to enlighten the group as to how they handled distribution down there in South America.

Droll and deadpan as ever, B.T. stood up and said: “We don’t, actually. We just hand everything over to the mafia and they handle it.” Then he sat back down.

That about summed up newspaper and magazine distribution in Argentina in those days, and it had been that way for decades and would be so for many years to come.

The godfather in charge: Luis Angel “Cholo” Peco. Whatever moves on the thousands of newsstands in the city of Buenos Aires does so with the blessing of “El Cholo”…or else, it doesn’t move at all. Same is true of the newsstands themselves. You want to set up a newsstand, “El Cholo” is the one who decides if you can, where you can and, some say, how much it’ll cost. Some distributors and newsvendors say it’s even “El Cholo” and his boys who decide which magazines and papers are out front on the stands and which get pushed to the back, which can be sold in the high-profile stands downtown and which can’t, which make it to what neighborhoods and which don’t. If you want to sell anything in print on the street, you need “El Cholo” or you’ll never see the light of day.

Like most ‘godfathers’, however, ‘El Cholo’ has a reputation as a benefactor. He gives out prizes for culture and journalism, gives money to charity and other worthy causes. He is often mentioned by newsmen as “a good guy” and as someone it is a privilege to know. But if “El Cholo” decides you’re off the street, no two ways about it, you’re screwed.

So with the start of the war, “El Cholo” – a rightwing nationalist who was once close to Perón but then incurred the late strongman’s wrath (a wrath that turned out to be ineffectual against “El Cholo”, despite the General’s own pervasive power) – decides that the Herald is a bastion of British interests and orders the trucks to pass us by. So we go on, “business as usual”, putting out a paper whether anybody distributes it or not, until we can figure out what to do next.

One of the things I’m doing here early today is calling around to whomever I think might be able to help. Since the military ran former Editor Bob Cox out of the country in ’79, Editor-in-Chief Jim Neilson and I (as his second) have had a deal. Paraphrasing his repeated words: I want nothing to do with what goes on out there (in the editorial department) day to day. I’ll set policy and write. You run the shop and write when you can and wish. Operationally, then, I run the show. A dubious honor, since it means I also have all of the headaches and jealousies and enmities that go with that turf, as well as sitting with Jim on the Board – where, truth be told, neither of us is very well liked by upper management. We’re controversial. We cause problems. We lose advertisers with the things we say and write. If they could figure out a way to put out a paper that was just ads and blank newsholes, we’d be out of work. But they know what the Herald’s known for and controversy’s the name of our game. They’re stuck with us…for now, at least.

Anyway, this is my call. Jim won’t want to hear about it. Getting the paper into print and onto the street is up to me and to Distribution. He only cares that it gets done. The rest is my problem.

“El Cholo’s” boys don’t want to talk to either me or our Administration. The decision is a “union” decision. Right! Whatever “El Cholo” says is what the union decides. So it pretty much looks like we’re dead in the water until the war’s over.

To make matters worse, Neilson, a Briton, has been receiving threats. We’re used to that. Ever since Cox left after a threatening letter was sent to his little boy, Jim and I have been receiving occasional personal threats and general threats have been aimed at the paper. But now, Jim is getting threats at home. He has kids. He’s worried. I halfheartedly try to talk him into getting his wife and children out and staying on himself, but his mind’s made up. He’s going to leave the country, and I’ll just have to make do until he comes back.

Great! Just what I needed. A newspaper with no distribution and an Editor-in-Chief in absentia. He leaves immediately but I get him to first sign a statement saying that as general news editor, I am interim editor-in-chief and that all final editorial decisions will be mine. He leaves for Montevideo (Uruguay) and I help his wife get traveling papers for her and the kids through a police captain at the Interior Ministry. Back at the paper, I tack his signed statement up on the bulletin board for everybody to see and send a copy upstairs to Administration. I want to make sure that on top of covering a war and trying to figure out how to get the paper onto the street I don’t also have to worry about putting down some mini-coup attempt among those who less than like me in the Editorial Department.

Then something heartening starts happening. As our readers start going to the newsstand to buy the paper and are told it isn’t being distributed, they begin showing up at our offices to buy it from us. Eventually, there are so many people that we have to open a window directly from the press bay onto the street because the Classified Ads desk ends up being overwhelmed. Under the military government and even before, the Herald has gained a reputation for “saying in English what others silence in Spanish” and with a war on, our readers don’t want to be without their paper.

Eventually, a third of our readership is turning out each morning and throughout the day to buy their Herald. The New York Times and other international media send reporters and photographers. It is a veritable phenomenon. Suddenly we have clout and I make use of it.

TTT

A few days into the strike, we start getting more aggressive. A gentle giant – the guy’s like six-foot-four – who is one of the two chief machinists on the Herald rotary press, offers to take the truck and distribute to whichever downtown newsstands and hotels are ballsy enough to defy “El Cholo” and distribute us anyway. An off-duty cop who sometimes does security work for us volunteers to go along. This guy is like five-foot-five and when he stands next to the other one, they look like P.T. Barnum and his dwarf, Tiny Tim. But what this guy lacks in size, he makes up for in guts and what he carries under his coat.

They’re not very far into their rounds of the newsstands, when a car that has been following them on a quiet street, suddenly speeds ahead of them, then swerves and cuts them off. The giant is driving and slams on the breaks of the pickup to keep from ramming them. At that point, the two thugs in the car get out and start swaggering back toward the truck. They’re each carrying a length of galvanized pipe and clearly don’t have plumbing on their minds.

Our giant climbs out of the driver’s side of the truck carrying a nice length of heavy logging chain. The two thugs spread out a little, like saying, “Okay Goliath, you’re gonna take a swing at one of us and the other one is gonna bust your knees with this pipe before you have a chance to swing that chain again. But then the passenger door of the truck opens and Tiny Tim steps out in his sober plainclothesman’s suit. The two thugs stop, size him up, and resume their approach. That’s when Tiny reaches into his coat, pulls out a revolver that, in his delicate hands, looks like an artillery piece, and rests the butt on the hood of the truck, aiming the weapon in their direction. The two heavies stop, look down at the pipes in their hands, weigh the odds, then back slowly away, climbing back into the car and driving away. That night, the Herald manages to get onto a few stands.

But the victory is short-lived. The mafia burns a newsstand or two and roughs up a few vendors and we’re barred from the street again. The queue at our offices to buy the paper is numbering in the thousands over the course of each day, and far from dwindling, the numbers are increasing. That’s the thing about prohibiting something: It makes it all the more attractive.

TTT

Today, some Herald management types and I are meeting with General Saint Jean. (I probably wouldn’t have gotten this meeting by myself – they’d have passed me off to the Public Information Secretariat – but our Administration set it up by telling the government that the company chairman wanted it and would be present – and he will be).

This isn’t the General Saint Jean (Ibérico) who usurped power as governor in Buenos Aires Province shortly after the coup and became internationally famous for that memorable quote of his, the one that goes: “First we’ll kill the subversives, then their collaborators, then their fans, then the indifferent, and finally, the undecided.” No, no…this is the other General Saint Jean, Alfredo, the one that used to be Secretary of the Army and is now Interior Minister, ever since Galtieri threw out Viola and took over as President without giving up his post as commander of the Army. I doubt we’ll get much of a reception from Saint Jean. This is the guy, after all, who ordered the violent repression of the Peace, Bread and Jobs march a couple of weeks back, which turned into a free-for-all that spread all over the downtown district and even involved office workers trying to bean the riot cops with metal waste baskets and paper weights and anything else they could get their hands on, hurling them from the windows of office buildings as the cops clubbed and gassed everybody and the demonstrators fought back. Who would ever have thought that, now, people would be back in Plaza de Mayo again, not rioting, but cheering the military for invading the Malvinas? It’s all so totally nuts.

TTT

Okay, here we are, at Government House – Herald Chairman Kenneth Rugeroni, Associate Editor Ronald Hansen and me, in my role as interim editor-in-chief – waiting to see General Saint Jean. We sit here quietly, not knowing what to say to each other, let alone to the general. But my head’s racing a mile a minute, getting my arguments together. I realize I’ll have to be frontal and quick to take the floor. I mean, Ron will probably say nothing at all – he does his talking from the typewriter and is known for resolving every situation by employing his brilliantly wry sense of humor – and Rugeroni…well, Rugeroni’s apt to fire me right here and now if the general says he’ll get the paper back on the street if I cease to exist. He would probably agree with Saint Jean (either of them) that Argentina would be a better place without bleeding-heart human rights-defending journalists who make their job (annihilating opponents of the regime) and that of the advertising department (convincing rightwing multinational executives to put ads in a paper that’s preaching human rights and the need for democracy all the time) so difficult. Newsmen, and especially commentators, both men would agree, are a royal pain in the ass.

I decide that stating my principles is less important than finding a pragmatic approach to convincing the general that the strike against the paper is illegal, hurts the regime’s “international image” and must be lifted immediately.

When General Saint Jean finally gets around to seeing us, I impatiently wait for introductions to be made all around and then launch immediately into my spiel, without respecting the protocol that would have Kenneth taking the lead. I point out first of all that the fact that the Herald, which has won a couple of major international awards for journalistic excellence in recent years, is being kept off the street is drawing a lot of attention worldwide. That over 3,000 people a day are coming to our offices to buy the paper because they can’t get it at the newsstand. That this makes it look as if the regime is trying to censor objective information about the impending war with Britain.

Saint Jean hedges, saying that this is a private matter and that the Interior Ministry can do little or nothing. It’s a conflict between a private newspaper and a private distributors’ union. It is, he feels, none of his business.

Now, chafing against the grain of my own convictions, I say, look, General, this is a de facto regime and, as far as I know, the ban on union activity and strikes imposed in 1976 remains in effect. This strike is aggravated by the fact that the union in question is a monopoly, run like a mafia operation – a monopoly that the government permits to exist, despite a six-year ban on unions. And as a monopoly legally accepted by the de facto regime, it should, one would think, be obliged to treat all publishing companies equally, because it’s the only game in town. We can’t just go somewhere else. If “Cholo” Peco doesn’t distribute us, nobody else will. What I’m asking for is that the government order the distributors to pick us up, because if not, we can only consider that the strike is backed by the government and therefore constitutes veiled censorship.

The general is smiling – a tense, almost sardonic smile, but a smile nonetheless – and is a little red in the face. I figure his first intuitive reaction is to grab me by the collar, haul me out of the room and toss me into a cell. But instead, he says that while he wants to repeat that this is a private affair that has nothing to do with the government, he will personally do “everything within his power” to try and convince the distributors to lift the strike. Trying to make my voice sound as amiable as possible, I say that, coming from him, I consider “everything in his power” to be quite a lot, adding that, in that case, I figure we’ll be back on the street momentarily.

In an editorial the next day, I tell about this meeting, thus putting it on the record and putting General Saint Jean on the spot. I can only hope it works, because we’re almost a week into the strike. And between the advertisers who have pulled out for fear of reprisals or because we aren’t on the newsstands and the cover price revenues we’ve lost, getting the strike lifted is a crucial question of survival.

TTT

A few more days go by, and every night our press run lies on the dock with no one to distribute it. And every morning, people start lining up to buy it. But I know that’s going to get old soon. The novelty will wear off, people will quit coming and the international press will simply consider us a victim of the Falklands crisis. No one but we will care about the actual consequences of a permanent shutdown of the paper.

I realize I need to act fast. I play my last card, a somewhat desperate one because with these mad dogs in government, it might elicit any type of reaction, including the paper’s being closed and my being thrown in jail. But I go with my gut instinct.

I publish a piece in which I again remind the readers of General Saint Jean’s vow to “do everything in his power” and I then suggest that if the general is doing everything in his power and we are still not getting distributed, then the “Cholo” Peco mafia is even more powerful than the de facto military regime governing the country.

Meanwhile, I get a call from the Editor and Publisher of the century-old daily La Prensa, Máximo Gainza. He asks if I can drop by and see him. He sounds sympathetic to our plight, despite the fact that his paper has gone hog wild on the whole Malvinas issue and is being rabidly nationalistic, pro-invasion and pro-war with Britain. Even such a brilliant La Prensa journalist as German-born Manfred Shoenfeld, who has very literally risked his life to denounce ‘Proceso’ crimes against humanity – having not only been threatened but also attacked and beaten on the street, among other scare tactics perpetrated against him – has suddenly become aggressively pro-Government with regard to the invasion of the islands and unequivocally anti-British despite having once lived for five years in London.

When I go to Máximo’s office, in the stately old La Prensa Building just off of Plaza de Mayo, he is very cordial, receptive and concerned about what’s happening to us with the distributors. He says he has spoken to “Cholo” Peco personally and has told him that if the distributors continue to fail to pick up the Herald, he will refuse to let them pick up La Prensa. Then he adds: “And I want to see what the reaction is when thousands of La Prensa readers start lining up in front of Plaza de Mayo to buy their paper.”

I am moved by his gesture and exceedingly grateful. And I make sure he knows it.

Between the government’s reaction to my editorial and “El Cholo’s” reaction to Máximo’s promise to spread the distribution issue to the Spanish-language press, the following night Peco’s trucks pick up our paper for distribution.

I try to remain humble and not to gloat, but inside, I feel accomplished. In just ten days, with a welcome bit of outside help, we’ve managed to bust a strike that could have dragged on indefinitely and put us out of business.