Early one morning in April, 1977, armed men acting under the orders of the Argentine government seized Jacobo Timerman from his Buenos Aires home. The outspoken editor and publisher of the dissident newspaper La Opinión became one of the best-known political prisoners of the right-wing regime of then-president Jorge Rafael Videla. After 2V2 years of imprisonment, Timerman, a Jew, was exiled and travelled to the United States, Spain and Israel. In 1981 he published his international bestseller Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, documenting the brutal torture and mental anguish he endured at the hands of the Argentine military. After Argentine democracy had been restored under President Raúl Alf onsin in 1983, Timerman returned to Argentina and served as a star witness in the trial and conviction of former police chief Gen. Ramon Camps, the man judged largely responsible for Timerman's torture. Maclean’s correspondent Andrew McLeod recently spoke with Timerman, now 6k, in his Buenos Aires apartment.
Maclean’s: Why did you return to Argentina?
Timerman: Being an exile is a difficult problem, very difficult for me. I remember Hannah Arendt [the GermanJewish scholar and refugee, who died in New York City in 1975] who spent so many years in the United States as a
7 did not recognize the top people who tortured me when I was shown them, because they change after 10 years'
writer and a professor. After 30 years in the States she said, ‘I just don’t fit.’
Maclean’s: What happened when you tried to regain control of La Opinión, which was confiscated by the military after your arrest?
Timerman: My lawyer sued the government before my return to Argentina, and the judges ordered everything returned
as it was. But the government said La Opinion was by then in the hands of a third party, which had bought it in good faith. So we had negotiations with the government that lasted more than two years, and we made a deal. I was paid reparations.
Maclean’s: Did that satisfy you? Timerman: No, it did not, because I cannot produce a paper with that. And La Opinion was not only a business, it was also an ideal.
Maclean’s: You were known to have had friends in the military when you lived in Argentina before—are you still in contact with them?
Timerman: No. I had three friends who were expelled from the army for their democratic beliefs. Two of them died while I was in exile. And another one— I do not see him a lot now—Col. Jaime Celsio, was imprisoned because of his ideals. He had criticized the army. As a political journalist for 40 years, in this country, you do meet the military. In the United States you can be a political writer and never meet a military man. Maclean’s: Do you feel the Argentines are too impatient with their fledgling democracy?
Timerman: This is, you know, a mythology created by journalists and sociologists and philosophers. I lived in Israel, and I lived in Spain, and these people are also constantly demanding things. It is
not a problem of impatience; they think that they have some rights. I do not see that it is especially different in Argentina. I see the democracy there as very strong. I see it lasting.
Maclean’s: What is your reaction to claims some Argentines have made recently that things were better under
the old military administration? Timerman: Listen, I heard people in Israel say that when the British were there, ‘we were better off.’ I heard people in Spain say that with Franco it was quite better, especially taxi drivers—they are people who like order, peace. But it does not mean anything.
Whenever there are elections and a commitment to democracy, people vote very well here.
Maclean’s: Do you see President Alfonsin as a stabilizing factor?
Timerman: Well, he has a character that brings peace to everybody—I mean his way of being, of talking, his jokes, his way of addressing the people. He is a typical middle-class character in this country, and people love him for that. But the other thing is that the experience of the past years was terrible. I would say people are now more patient, much more patient.
Maclean’s: You recently visited Chile, a military dictatorship, which is the subject of your next book. What was your reception like there?
Timerman: Nothing, officially. Nobody in the government wanted to talk to me. But of course there are a lot of things to see. The book will be about Chile as it is today—I am not a historian. People speak very openly there, really very openly. I was impressed.
Maclean’s: How many times during your imprisonment in Argentina were you face-to-face with Gen. Camps? Timerman: During the investigation I saw him several times—I do not remember how many exactly. Several times in three different places: in two clandestine jails and the police headquarters. And then I did not see him again after he
delivered the results of the investigation to the council of war that tried me. They rejected his investigation, saying that there were no charges. After that I was held for another two years, but I have not seen him since then. You know, I could not prove that Camps was at the torture sessions, because I did not see him directly. I did not recognize the top people who tortured me when I was shown them, because they change after 10 years. You know how it is: they show you five people who all look more or less alike.
Maclean’s: But are you sure Camps was directly involved in the torture? Timerman: I think so. What I told the judges was that in one room in which I was tortured I heard his voice. Because you are blindfolded—when you are tortured they really do not interrogate you because you scream so much, you are in pain. It is really, as they say in Spanish, para ablandar, to soften you up. The interrogation comes later, in a second room. After the torture I would see him. He was always there. But when the judge asked me if I had seen him when I was tortured, I said no. Maclean’s: How do you feel about the fact that Camps's superior at the time, Gen. Carlos Guillermo Suarez Mason, was captured last month in California? Timerman: I would like Suárez Mason to be tried. No question about that. Maclean’s: In 1986 theAlfonsin administration passed the punto final, a law which stipulates that certain crimes not brought to trial by March of this year will not be prosecuted. Is that a good idea?
Timerman: People who have been
charged, and who are on the run, there is no prescription for them. They can bring them back. As I understand it, the punto final is only for the people who have not been charged yet, after three years, and I agree with some kind of putting an end to the problem. There comes a time when you cannot charge people through a legal system, and there is nothing you can do about that.
Maclean’s: The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, whose children were among those who disappeared without explanation under Videla, claim that the punto final is an amnesty in disguise. Do you not share that feeling?
Timerman: No, no, I have no feelings of revenge. If you want to live in a democracy you have to accept the way democracy works. The Mothers want democracy, but instead of five judges they want a Robespierre, and they even say that Videla and Alfonsin are the same kind of president. This is crazy. So democracy works this way: sometimes you like it, sometimes you do not. I accept it. I am happy having seen these generals being tried. That is enough for me.
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