Argentine author and newspaper editor Jacobo Timerman returned to Argentina last December after almost five years of exile to attend the inauguration of Raid Alfonsin, the country's first elected civilian president since 1976. Timerman, 61, says that he went home to testify against Gen. Ramon Camps, who ordered his arrest in 1977 on unspecified charges, and to identify the secret prisons where his military jailers tortured him for more than two years. As well, he is trying to recover his newspaper, La Opinion, which the military government of Gen. Jorge Videla confiscated and sold. Maclean’s correspondent Douglas Tweedale spoke with Timerman in Buenos Aires about the prospects for democracy in Argentina and his future plans.
Maclean’s: Since the military government expelled you in 1979 a lot has happened in Argentina, including the country's Falklands debacle, its economic collapse and the return to democracy with the election of President Alfonsin. How does your country now look to you? Timerman: It is amazing to me how much Argentina has changed. For the first time since I can remember, I have the feeling, the
belief, that if there were a rumor of a coup, people would take to the streets to defend democracy. It is difficult to explain that change, but people here never cared much for democracy: a change from a military government to a civilian one was the same as from a civilian to a military government. Nobody knew what democracy was like. I myself only discovered it living in exile in Israel, Spain and the United States. But now people are in love with democracy. They have learned its value and are willing to defend it.
Maclean’s: What accounts for that change?
Timerman: There were three shocks that I think really made people realize how dangerous military governments can be if they have no restraints. The first was the discovery of the true genocide the military committed with its human rights abuses. It was the first time in this century that genocide had been committed in this country, and it shocked Argentines, g who like to think of them= selves as cultured and soI phisticated. The second
0 shock was the collapse of 1 the economy. Argentina I was always a rich country. 1 There had never been any
misery, and suddenly the economy went completely down the drain. In this country everyone used to say, ‘God is an Argentine,’ but no one is saying it anymore. Third, the catharsis produced by the Falklands defeat, the shock of Argentines when they discovered that the military and the press had lied to them in a way that is only comparable to the last statements of Nazi propagandist Josef Goebbels in the Berlin bunker in 1945. One minute people believed they were winning the war, and the next it was absolute defeat. That shock was much more terrible for us Argentines,
who are taught from childhood that the Malvinas [Falklands] are Argentine, than to discover the concentration camps and secret graves.
Maclean’s: In the past 56 years military coups have overthrown all elected Argentine presidents. Can the armed forces now be re-educated to respect democracy?
Timerman: To try to change the mentality of the military after 50 years of political intervention is a task that could take a century. But it is not necessary for the military to believe in democracy, as long as it does not have the
power to intervene in civilian politics. In Spain there are still photos of Gen. Franco in all the barracks, but the armed forces are contained.
Maclean’s: What has Alfonsin done to try to bring the military under control? Timerman: He has cut the military budget by 40 per cent, reduced the number of conscripts by 12 per cent, sent 30 generals into retirement and cut down the size of the officer corps. But, most important of all, he has ended the tremendous economic power of the military by transferring ownership of all the key industries—coal, oil, steel, railroads, mining, nuclear—from military to civilian hands. That will limit what the military can do. Even if it does not change the military’s philosophy, it takes away the instruments of power. Maclean’s: Can Alfonsin solve the problems of650-per-cent inflation, recession, a federal deficit of $9.88 billion and, at the same time, pay back Argentina's $58.5-billion foreign debt?
Timerman: Alfonsin’s policy is very pragmatic, and I think that his is the right approach. There is no room for philosophy here, no room for ideology. The country is suffering its worst economic disaster ever, all of it inherited from the military government, and there are very few options. The crisis is bound to worsen, and all Alfonsin can hope to do is to organize the crisis so that it produces the least amount of pain possible. He has to pay the debt but get the best terms possible. I believe he will implement austerity measures but will try to have them affect the poorest classes the least.
Maclean’s: In your book, Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number,
you describe some of the tortures you suffered and witnessed—pregnant women tortured with electric shock, babies killed or sold—while you were in secret military jails. How do you explain that brutality in a country as civilized as Argentina, which prides itself on its European cultured
Timerman: I do not know. I am still asking myself what makes men at some point have the urge to destroy other men. How do you explain the fact that young Israeli boys, raised in the kibbutzim with socialist groups, believing in everything that is good, can go to Lebanon and remain silent when they see what the right-wing Christian Phalangists are doing? I have no answers for those kinds of questions.
Maclean’s: You have ample reason to be bitter about your experience and about life in Argentina. Are you? Do you feel angry, resentful or cynical?
Timerman: Well, I have lived in Argentina all my life, and this is the first time I have seen this country so full of hope, of enthusiasm for the future. It is absolutely impossible for me to be bitter or
angry at this point. In fact, when I think of what happened to me, I feel more of a need to participate, to help support democracy.
Maclean’s: How can you be so confident of the future of democracy, so sure that Argentina has finally broken its 50-year cycle of military coups?
Timerman: I am always amazed when journalists ask that question, when they ask, ‘How can a country change?’ I ask instead, why not? Argentina is at a historic turning point now, like Germany after 1945 or Spain after Franco, and I think the military is going to change its status in Argentine politics and go back to the status they had at the beginning of this century when they played the role of the country’s defenders. Maclean’s: Have you no doubts? There is no chance of a coup?
Timerman: That depends on us, the civilians. If we sit back with our arms crossed, with that typical fatalism of Argentines, then maybe there could be. But personally I think that, after 50 years of military power in this country, people are willing to fight for democracy, to take to the streets if need be. Maclean’s: How do you see the future of the legendary Peronist Party? Can it adapt to the role of a responsible opposition party that will contribute to democracy?
Timerman: If there is anything that is unpredictable in Argentina, it is Peronism. Historically, it has gone from being a party inspired by Italian fascism to one whose ideology was that of the Trotskyist left, and everything in between. Since the death of [two-time president Juan Domingo] Perón, the party has been in decline, and I think the results of last year’s election show that. At this moment I would say there is not one single Peronist party—there are several leaders, several ideologies, different strategies and disciplines coexisting within the party, but they are violently contradictory and mutually incompatible.
Maclean’s: What are your plans for the future?
Timerman: Last month I accepted the position of editor of La Razón [a Buenos Aires daily newspaper]. But I also want to get my paper, La Opinión, back now that there are truly democratic conditions for a newspaper and freedom of the press. I am studying the possibilities of doing this right now, scouting possible printing facilities and things like that. I think La Opinión could be a great support for democracy. We have experienced an enormous change from one political situation to another in Argentina, the greatest political change of the century, but the press we have now is virtually the same as the press that justified and supported the military dictatorship eight years ago.£>
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