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.

3 comments:

Sylvia said...

Dan, this is a brilliant piece on your "Herald Days" during the Falklands/Malvinas war. I've read every bit of it with fascination. I lived thru' those ghastly months, what a nightmare...and so contradictory, with nearly the whole nation supporting the Galtieri regime, cheering him on..I feel that your ability to keep The Herald going, using several 'sly' and intelligent manouevers, should be widely known. Absolutely heroic. Sadly, I believe mafiosi such as the 'Cholo' are around today, but that's another tale. Congrats & thank you!
BTW, where is the widget for adding followers to this blog? Come on, these articles must be read by a wide audience, in public fashion. And I love to get automatic e.mails letting me know when you've added something. See ya!

Stiffy said...

Great read Dan, thanx for giving me a unique insight to one aspect of what happened in this conflict

Dan Newland said...

Thank so much, "Stiffy", for taking the time to read it and comment.