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Guardian journalist Uki Goñi discusses his career reporting from Buenos Aires.
At the top of the Brenner Pass on the borderline between Austria and Italy. The pass over the Alps was used by Nazi criminals such as Adolf Eichmann and Josef Mengele to escape to freedom. Filming the History Channel documentary "Fourth Reich." Image courtesy of Uki Goñi.
Two days before I met with Uki Goñi, his analysis of president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and the crisis in Argentina was the top article on the Guardian website. Goñi is a correspondent for British newspapers, covering events in Argentina, but his professional experiences before this are enough for a number of lives. He arrived in the city in his early twenties and began work as a journalist at the Buenos Aires Herald, an English language daily and the city’s only newspaper reporting on missing people during the dictatorship. Over the next decade he focused on his band Los Helicópteros, and then wrote three books: El Infiltrado. La verdadera historia de Alfredo Astiz, on the activities of the ESMA, an illegal detention center during the country's National Reorganization Process (1976-1983) responsible for disappearances, tortures, and illegal executions; Perón y los Alemanes, on Perón's involvement with Nazi spies in the country; and The Real Odessa, on Nazi criminals' escapes to Argentina.
I spoke with Goñi on February 4, 2014 at Oui Oui Café in the Palermo Hollywood neighborhood of Buenos Aires, on a sunny summer morning.
–– Jessica Sequeira
Jessica Sequeira: Why did you come to Buenos Aires?
Uki Goñi: My life story is way complicated. I was born in the States, where I lived until I was fourteen, then my family moved to Ireland, where I lived until I was twenty-one, then I came here. But my family background is Argentine and my parents were Argentine. I wanted to stay in Ireland very much. Very much. But there was tremendous family pressure on me to come here. I am an Argentine citizen, and when I turned twenty-one—no, eighteen—the military service was still obligatory, so I had to come for that. I tried staying on in Ireland, enrolling at Trinity College. But basically I ran out of money, and they wouldn’t give me a scholarship because they said my father was an ambassador and I didn’t need it. I couldn’t really work because I wasn’t Irish either; I could be there as a student but I couldn’t work. I had like 300 pounds or something, that was all.
JS: That doesn’t get you very far now. I’m not sure about then…
UG: No, not then either. So I said, “Well, fuck it, I have to deal with the fact I’m Argentine, even though I wasn’t born there and don’t work there and don’t have any friends there and don’t know any family there I’ll have to deal with that and go.” In Ireland, I was going to be a musician or a poet, which is what I did, I published poetry and had a band. And then I came here. What was I going to do here? Plus I had to do it in a different language; my Spanish was not that great back then. So I went into the Buenos Aires Herald and said, “Will you publish some of my poetry?” and they laughed and said, “We don’t publish poetry, but if you want, you can write some articles for us.” So I started freelancing for them back in 1975, and finally got a full time job there in ’77.
You know, journalism is a crappy dishonest business that no one in their sane mind gets involved in, but I started working at the Herald because I needed the money. Back then there were only Americans and British working there, and none of them spoke really good Spanish. Mine was better than all the rest of them, so when the mothers of the disappeared started showing up, they said “Uki, you speak better Spanish than we do, you go talk with them.” I was twenty-three years old then and I said, well, whatever plans I have for being anything else in life I’m going to put them on hold and do this. Because even though I was super young I realized, “This is a privileged place to be in, like a balcony on Dante’s inferno. This is hell. And it’s a murderous bloody hell that’s occurring in a country where nobody gives a shit.”
When I went back home to my family and the few friends I’d met back then, I’d tell them, these women came into the Herald today and said, “Armed men came into my house and took my children, and the refrigerator, and stole the doors”—that’s something they would do, they would steal the doors. Nobody cared. They would kind of look away and say “So, you wanna go to the movies, or to dinner?” I was very aware I could go up to the States, the “land of the free,” or to Ireland, where the IRA was saying, “let’s burn down the British Embassy,” and the response would be different.
I was very aware of what was going on in Argentina. Even if I hadn’t been working at the Herald, which was the resonance box of what was happening, I still wouldn’t be able to look away. I wasn’t that kind of person. But at the Herald back then, which is a completely different Herald than it is now, we could talk about this. It was the only place where we could talk about what was happening. We often thought that this is what it must have been like in Berlin in 1939 or 1941, where you knew that something terrible was happening. You knew a lot of innocent people were being killed for no reason at all except hatred and prejudice, and no one was talking about it.
And so, for the next five or six years, this became my life. Looking back on it now, with hindsight, lots of people have come forward and said, “The Herald saved my life.” In different ways, because we published pictures, especially of kids that were kidnapped. Some of them were let go because of that, and are alive for that reason. For example, a man came forward who had been taken into the ESMA concentration camp, and our editor Robert Cox published a story about him because his father had come to see us, and the bad guys at the ESMA got scared and let him go. I worked at the Herald until 1983, when I decided to make music and start a band. And when I left the Herald I looked back on it thinking, “Fuck what a waste, we didn’t save anybody, we didn’t do anything, nobody cared.” But as the decades went by, we realized that we had been able to save quite a few lives there.
I could hear these Argentine military people talking. They were saying, “How many people do we have to kill to make things right in Argentina?”
In terms of my personal life, all it created for me was a lot of danger. I had thugs waiting outside my home when I went back; the police put a tape recorder on the telephone box in my building to record all my conversations. We had constant threats, we lived in constant fear, we were literally just shaking, we were shaking and the mothers who came to see us were out of their minds and shaking. To me these were really old women—they would have been in their early forties back then—and I suppose I had this kind of deep immersion into the depths that humans can fall to and also the heights that they can reach. Because at the same time, because of my family background, I lived among the people who supported and were behind this. Some of these Navy officers who were the worst ESMA torturers had been in my home when I was growing up in Dublin and my father was an ambassador there, and in the late sixties these guys would stop in my home. I have pictures of my mother with some of the ESMA torturers before they became ESMA torturers. So I knew these people up close and first hand.
Growing up in the States and in Ireland, I could hear these Argentine military people talking. I knew what they were up to. They were saying, “How many people do we have to kill to make things right in Argentina?” That was normal dinner table conversation when these people came home in the late sixties and early seventies, in the States and in Dublin. And maybe I heard some of it here as well, but I especially remember it back there. So when the coup occurred in ’76 I had no false illusions about what they were going to do—kill as many people as they could—because I’d heard them talking about it. That gave me a very singular perspective, you know, as opposed to the Americans and British who came there as correspondents. I would say about foreigners who come to Argentina and try to understand it, that they can walk in the Argentine rain without getting wet, because they don’t know where the raindrops are. They just don’t know the idiosyncrasies here, what we’re like.
I worked for the Herald from about ’75 to ’83 and then I quit. I quit and went into the music world for seven years, and then in 1990 I went back to the Herald, until 1994. But by then it had become very corrupt.
JS: What do you think of it now?
UG: I don’t think of it. They’ve asked me to write for them, but I won’t. It’s like one of those rock groups that get together when they’re 70 years old and they shouldn’t, they should stay home. There’s nobody there from that time; it’s changed completely. You have to understand that when Robert Cox was editor, we were a very small group of 10 to 15 people and then there was the business side, the owners, etc. You have to realize that apart from Cox and myself and a couple of others, nobody supported what we were doing inside the Herald. Some of the owners didn’t like what we were doing, the expats living in Argentina at the time weren’t interested in what we were doing. . . .
JS: The expats weren’t interested in what was going on either?
UG: Some were, but many weren’t. Cox told us he’d been at a party at the American Embassy and this American woman came up to him and said, “What are you doing over at the Herald defending communists? Fuck human rights!” On the other hand there were also Americans who were very concerned, Tex Harris at the American Embassy, and Patricia Derian who was the American special envoy for human rights. Patricia came to the country and confronted the generals, and came to the Herald and worked closely with Robert Cox. But some of the journalists at the Herald didn’t agree with what we were doing. Certainly the Argentine owners didn’t. And Cox was just in the very unusual situation that not only was he editor-in-chief, he was also president of the company, so he could do whatever he wanted and shareholders couldn’t stop him.
For me the Herald is a place associated with incredible heroics, with very brave reporting. For example, one day one of these dictator generals called up Cox and said, “If you don’t stop publishing what you’re publishing, we’re going to take away our advertising.” To which Cox said, “Actually, you never gave us any advertising. So I don’t care.” I can’t imagine that happening at the Herald today. We were in a position then where we were extremely independent, because of a series of special circumstances, because we had this very brave editor who wasn’t looking at the bottom line financially and who took it upon himself with the help of a few others like me to save as many lives as he could using the position he was in.
That doesn’t happen very often in a generation. Most people, even good people, will not rise to a challenge or the opportunity. And I understand. When the mothers came to the Herald they would often—not always, but often—be followed by their husbands coming up the steps behind them, saying, “Let’s leave! We can’t do this, it would be crazy! I could lose my job if I say what’s happened to my son. Plus we still have two or three kids left and you have to think about them too. If we talk about the one they took away, then they might come back and take away our other kids.” On the one hand you might think, “My God, all men are scum, look at this husband trying to convince his wife not to fight for the life of her kids.” And at the same time, I’ve talked to these mothers today, who say, “Well, actually my husband was doing what he had to do, because in order to protect our family he had to have a job and he was right in thinking that we should protect our other children, the ones that we still had left with us.” Nothing is very black and white in those circumstances.
Foreigners can walk in the Argentine rain without getting wet, because they don’t know where the raindrops are.
I think I was extremely lucky that I landed in such a place at such a young age. When I left the Herald at the age of twenty-seven, I thought all journalists were like that, that the world was like that, full of incredible, brave, giving people. And it took me a long while to realize that that’s not what the world is like, that not all editors are like Robert Cox. When I went back to the Herald in the nineties hoping I could play a part in making it what it was before, I discovered it was impossible, because by then it was looking at the financial bottom line, and its editors were more interested in making friends with the government than looking at corruption. I was very interested in writing about corruption in the press in Argentina, which is mayhem, and this created a lot of bad feelings with my editors, who viewed corruption as a necessary evil. And so after four years I left and went to go write my first book, about those years at the Herald and some of the things I’ve mentioned.
JS: But your first book was about the ESMA, yes? How did you choose that topic? How did you go about doing that research?
UG: It was about the ESMA. When I left the paper in ’94 I thought, “I’m going to write a book about the Herald people. I’m going to write a book about the glory days, about what the Herald did.” To me what Robert Cox did was on par with what Raoul Wallenberg did saving Jews in Hungary during the war, or what Oscar Schindler did. You know, he was a man who put his life on the line and his family’s life on the line and who eventually had to leave Argentina with his five kids and his dog because of what he’d done. But when I started writing the book it was just too close to home. There were just the emotions . . . even talking about it now I still get emotional about what we did and how dangerous it was.
So instead of writing about the Herald, I wrote about a specific case. When the mothers started to become a voice in the international press, the people at the ESMA started getting worried. There was a young Navy lieutenant called Alfredo Astiz who infiltrated the mothers for about six or seven months, telling them that he had a missing brother. Then they kidnapped the leaders of the mothers and a group of young people who were working with the mothers. I knew these mothers and this group of young people very well; they came to see me a lot at the Herald.
By then we knew what the ESMA had done but we didn’t know the details about how it had happened. So I decided to write a book about that because I was personally involved in the case, because I knew the young kids. Imagine me, fresh from Ireland. Suddenly I meet these—they weren’t armed revolutionaries, but they were certainly ideologists. So I have this group of young women, older than I was—I was twenty-three and they were about twenty-seven—which to me made them old at the time. I was excited and a couple of the women were not bad looking, but at the same time it was extremely dangerous. And they kept inviting me to the place where they met, which was the Church of the Holy Cross, the Irish church here. And I never went, because I said, “These kids are crazy. You know what they’re doing is just too crazy.”
So I have a little guilt attached as well, because I didn’t go. Guilt because maybe I could have saved their lives, and journalist’s professional guilt because, my God, I would have been able to report more then. But then again, if I’d gone I probably wouldn’t be alive today, because they kidnapped and killed them all. That was what made me choose that topic. It was extremely emotionally important for me to write that book, because I owed that to these people.
JS: And a couple years ago that book was used to give Astiz a life sentence.
UG: This came as a surprise. As I was interested in the case, and the prosecutors were reading their accusations, I thought I’d go along and listen and get the chance to see Astiz face to face while he was sitting there.
I’d been with him at a posh party on Libertador Avenue during the dictatorship, dancing to “The Last Train to London” by Electric Light Orchestra. I remember that I dragged the owner of the house to the kitchen and said, “Do you know who you have out there?” And he said, “Yes, it’s Alfredo Astiz.” And I said, “He’s the murderer of the French nuns and the Swedish teenager.” And he said, “No, he’s the hero of Malvinas,” because he’d just come back from Malvinas. So I said to him, “Well, whatever you do, don’t tell him that I work at the Herald.” And I thought then, “Should I stay or should I go?” And I stayed at the party and he was dancing next to me all night.
I knew people that knew him. So that also motivated me to write that book and motivated my personal interest in the case. Even though I’d never crossed words with him, I had friends who played chess with him, and who as kids had gone to the same school as him. I knew grown-ups who back in his school days had been friends with him, and had no idea he’d done anything except fight against communism. That motivated me because he was like Robert Redford back then, cool, blond, good-looking, with all the girls chasing after him. But he was insane, totally insane, and I thought, “I have to unmask this.”
So when I went to hear the prosecution read their accusation, and the prosecutor started going, “Like Uki Goñi says on page whatever of his book,” I thought, what! Nobody told me. Then they called me and I went to go speak with the prosecutor. And I gave them a hand because I helped them find a witness they were looking for. There were lots of background conversations about that case because I’m such an expert on it in particular. And then of course they called me to testify about the Holy Cross kidnappings; there were twelve people kidnapped, three mothers, two French nuns, and the other younger people who helped them. But they weren’t all taken from the church. Actually two were taken from a bar near the Herald, who were coming to see me that day. And they were kidnapped from the bar. So I testified about those two in particular, saying, “Yes, they were at that bar because I was going to meet them there.”
Testifying in 2011 actually provided me with some kind of closure. Because as far as I know I don’t have any missing blood relatives, like many people do. But when you’re very young and you live in extreme pressure cooker situations like that . . . Even though they weren’t friends or anything, I developed a very intimate bond with these mothers and these young people who came to see me, just because of the danger we were under, the nature of the relationship. Even though I probably wouldn’t agree with their politics, they’re still on my mind.
JS: So that was your first book, and your second one’s even heavier…
UG: (Laughs) It gets worse! You know, as an Argentine growing up in Ireland and the States I was always taunted by my friends in school, who said “Yeah, that’s where all the Nazis are.” Not were, that’s where they are, back in the sixties. So I was very aware growing up that Argentina was a hideout for the Nazis. And then of course seeing at the Herald what was happening in Argentina, the parallel with Nazi Germany was just . . . well they’re building camps and taking people there who disappear and nobody knows where they are. And then they steal their property.
JS: Did you report on that for the Herald as well? The Nazis?
UG: No, I think the Herald ran a couple of Nazi stories, but I didn’t… the Nazis don’t interest me that much. You know, what am I interested in? I’m interested in poetry and music.
JS: The Real Odessa is the book people seem to associate with you.
UG: Yeah, but of course I was sidetracked into it. I felt the moral obligation to follow it up when these mothers came to see me saying, “They took my kid. And then they came back this morning and took the refrigerator and the TV set. And I don’t know where they are and I don’t know where my kids are.” And when there were enough of them—when you’re getting twenty women like that every day—you say, hold on, there’s something going on here, which we knew anyway because it was patent.
It’s difficult to overemphasize the atmosphere of pervasive fear we lived in at that time. You’d be sitting here and there’d be army trucks with guys in uniform and their guns patrolling the city. I was constantly harassed and driven to police stations because of my long hair, because if you had long hair you were different back then and the police would pick you up. That was how you lived; it was a constant state of oppression.
So after I did that first book I started thinking something I’d always thought but decided to look into more closely, asking, "Can it be a coincidence that the country that welcomed so many Nazi criminals after the war, and that was such an ally of the Nazi regime during the war, ended up where it did in the seventies, setting up death camps and driving people off to an invisible death?" So I decided to investigate if there were any links. I thought, let’s see if at the Argentine concentration camps there were any Nazi criminals—any former SS guys at the ESMA torturing people or helping out the military—which I didn’t find. As far as I can tell that didn’t happen. But what I did find were some kind of scary things.
The Nazis came here in the first place because they found that Argentines had a mindset similar to their own.
The Nazis came here in the first place because they found that Argentines had a mindset similar to their own, especially in the thirties and forties when there was so much anti-Semitism and Argentina was an openly fascist place. That openly fascist mindset that existed in Argentina in the thirties incentivized in a way the arrival of the Nazis after the war. And I think their impact was not so much during the dictatorship itself, but during the democracy after the dictatorship, when amnesty laws were passed and people like Astiz or the dictators or the generals lived freely among us and went to the restaurant and the beach and walked down the street and did their supermarket shopping without any fear of reprisal. And I said, well, that’s not surprising, because Argentina had during the late forties and early fifties and sixties, gotten used to living with the worst Nazi criminals among us who were doing the same, going to the restaurant, doing the shopping, going to the opera at the Colón.
Argentines got used to this, what I call “slow cohabitation with evil.” And we got used to the idea that it’s okay for the worst criminals in the world to live among us freely and without any fear of the law. That’s what allowed there to be no trials and the military at large for twenty years. Here you have a society not unlike other societies in the world, but where corruption and political violence is so acceptable to the median Argentine that it’s mind-blowing to somebody who believes in democracy, and even to Argentines who believe in Argentina’s particular brand of democracy. There seems to be this constant struggle between this old-fashioned kind of nineteenth-century democratic thinkers who believe in individual freedom and peaceful means to resolve political disputes, and this other Argentina, a very violent Argentina, whether of the left or of the right, which has little respect for the rule of law.
JS: Would you say there’s some kind of collectivist mentality then?
UG: A collectivist mentality, yeah. The best definition I ever read was by a Belgian war criminal who escaped to Argentina and lived here. Now actually, many of these Nazis were extremely cultured, well-read people. The thing about Nazis is that some of them were very intelligent—not all of them, but many. And this guy was a very smart guy. He was a writer, publishing a lot of books before becoming a Nazi collaborator, and he kept a diary of his life in Argentina, where he mixed with lots of Argentine nationalists and politicians. I had to travel to Belgium to get permission from the family to read and photocopy this diary. And in it, at one point—like you or I or anybody who’s been here more than eight days in a row—he starts trying to understand how the Argentine mind works. And he writes in his diary, “Argentines are fascists who don’t obey orders.” (Laughs) I thought that was the greatest definition.
JS: There seems to be a contradiction between the collectivist mentality of community where everyone’s meant to work together as a people, and the way that, when push comes to shove, everyone turns to their own families and individual concerns and kind of shuts their eyes.
UG: It’s an extremely egocentric, individualistic society.
JS: But which still calls itself, if not populist, something like that.
UG: When I was growing up in Dublin I was a voracious reader, and of course I bought all of Orwell. I bought 1984 and read it, and I said “Fuck, this is Argentina. I’ve never been there, but from everything I’ve been hearing at the dinner table, this is it.” What went on in this future world was that people developed the capacity for doublethink, which is the capacity for holding two opposite and contradictory thoughts in the mind at the same time—today we’re at war with Eurasia and tomorrow we’re at war with Asia and whoever was our enemy yesterday is today our ally, and there’s no contradiction in one’s mind. Here you can be a total individualist, egocentric, paranoid, and at the same time declare yourself a populist who has the public welfare at the top of your mind.
We’re all corrupt here. Not even we—I’m corrupt. Because if I’m at a red light, I’m not going to stop for it; I’m going to try to push through it. The supermarket is corrupt. They’re always trying to get the 10 cents of cambio from you. Nobody has change, so “Can I keep the change?” corruption is okay, but there are no limits; it’s a society with few limits. And of course there are societies in the world that are much more violent and much more lawless than Argentina. It’s just that in Argentina, because of its immigration and because there are a certain number of us who look white and speak a couple of languages and are well educated, thanks to the fact that public education is free, there’s this kind of shocking contradiction. We can look and act like Swedes, but left to our own devices we’ll be as corrupt as the most corrupt country in the world.
I wrote a second book in Spanish about Perón and the Nazis during the war, and uncovered an incredible amount of stuff about how Perón collaborated with the Nazis and was handing out Argentine passports to SS men in South America so they could spy on Latin America and the United States from here. So after the war, when Argentina started helping Nazis to come here with Argentine documents, it had already been doing it during the war, and it was just a natural extension. When I did this book, I proposed doing another book in Spanish here about the Nazis coming to Argentina after the war with the help of Perón. This did not sit well, because by then I was in trouble with everybody.
JS: And so you published your third book in London.
UG: I became kind of pals with an Irish writer called Colm Tóibín. His first novel was set in Argentina, The Story of the Night. So after my second book came out, this book about Perón, I actually made a little money for the first time in my life. I was, whatever, 195 years old by then, and was able to go back to Dublin for the first time since I left at age twenty-one. So I had this kind of very emotional homecoming, meeting my old friends and my old girlfriend. And then I went to see Colm and it was one of those amazing things that happens once in a lifetime—he said, “You know, why don’t you go speak to so-and-so at Faber & Faber, and so-and-so at Granta,” and he made it happen.
Then at Granta, the editor was another Irishman. When I went to see him in London, I realized that the only reason they were hiring me to write this book about the escape of the Nazis was because I knew people they knew in Dublin. Which was amazing; I was super lucky. And you know, it was hell as well, because I signed the contract in ’98 and the book was published in 2002, and by then I’d given up all hope on this ever happening, and after I finished the book Granta sat on it for a year and a half. When it came out, I thought, “Well who the fuck is going to care about this.”
I was very aware when I chose that subject, after I’d done the first book on Perón and the Nazis during the war, that no one had looked at this seriously, and that there was nobody serious enough as a historian in Argentina to look at it. Here historians are just as corrupt as journalists, and not very serious about the methods they use to research history; they’re not very good with footnotes and stuff. Argentine historians use the French style to write about something. You know, you lock yourself in your apartment with a bottle of wine and lots of coffee and you think about a subject and then you write whatever your opinion is about the subject. But you don’t actually do any research or get your hands dirty anywhere, except maybe with coffee if it spills. I realized that we’re here with this huge Mount Everest and that not even anybody from the outside could do it; Americans or Europeans couldn’t do it. I was ideally located and I came from a long line of Argentine diplomats—my grandfather was an Argentine diplomat, and my father, and my brother, and my uncle. I knew everything that had gone on because I’d heard about it at home growing up. I knew that there was a mother lode there waiting to be uncovered. And also I’m bilingual Spanish-English.
Access was very difficult at the archives here in Argentina, very difficult. At the same time, sometimes I would show up at an archive and the archivist would go… “Al fin! (throws out arms) Somebody came, look what I got!” And it was Perón Perón Nazi Nazi Perón Perón Nazi Nazi. Real stuff, you know, not propaganda.
So when The Real Odessa came out in London, I remember I got off the plane and went to sleep and then I woke up in the morning and went out to get some coffee and buy some newspapers, and I opened the Observer and it had a banner headline, half page, top of the page, same thing in The Telegraph. The British went crazy over this book. And then I was lucky and was eventually translated into German and Spanish and Italian, and I’m still dealing with the repercussions from it. And the responsibility. Because I was sued by SS captain Priebke, who was in Italy and wanted 50,000 euros, thank you very much, and he’d won every single lawsuit he’d started before mine. Luckily I won.
For me that was an interesting parallel, how Germany has dealt with its past and how Argentina deals with its past.
The book has won me no friends in Argentina, really no friends at all. Because, to give you an idea, I’m constantly consulted by academics in the States, or in Germany, or in Europe. Every week there’s somebody who wants something. Yeah, you too. (Laughs). To the point where even the Holocaust Museum in Washington came to see me and asked me for my archive, and I said, “Okay, I’ll give it to you as long as you scan it all for me.” So now it’s over there in Washington, like 25,000 pages of stuff. Photocopies, but it’s all together in one place.
But I’ve never had an Argentine university or an Argentine academic ask me for anything. Nothing. I’ve never been approached by any historian in Argentina. I’ve never been invited to give a lecture at a university, never been invited to speak to history students anywhere in the country. Nothing, nada. I’ve spoken at universities in the United States, in South Carolina and in Germany and Manchester and Salzburg. But here . . . nothing. And this is kind of shocking. Of course I have all the admiration of the anti-Peronistas, but they’re a bunch of crazy kooks as well. So that doesn’t help me at all.
I actually ended up spending a lot of time in Berlin, half a year here and half a year there, and talked a lot with young students. There’s something between Argentina and Germany in the mindset. I get lots of kids over there saying, “But why should we care? It’s my grandparents, why are you talking about this? Why should we be paying retribution to the Jews, why should we be paying this money for something that happened sixty years ago, what’s it got to do with me? Why does my pocket have to suffer because of this?” So I had to come up with an answer for that. I said, “Well, by the time it gets around to your generation it’s optional. You can choose to not deal with it, in which case your children will have to deal with it. Or you can choose to say the buck stops here, and I’m going to deal with this.”
Germany has a generation of grandchildren who either don’t want to know what their grandparents did and say, “This has nothing to do with me, why are you always picking on Germany?” or else are really interested. Something happened there because while the children of the Nazis weren’t able to talk to their parents, the grandchildren could. There’s this different bond between a grandchild and a grandparent that allowed for greater openness. So I spent lots of time in consultations with grandchildren of the war making documentaries or feature films on the subject. For me that was an interesting parallel, how Germany has dealt with its past and how Argentina deals with its past, as opposed to the Italians and the Swiss and the Austrians who have decided not to deal with it.
So this book created a kind of public isolation and formed a public view where I think people are very aware what my work means—and I’m pretty aware of it too—and at the same time there’s this silence that surrounds it, because Perón and Evita are such sacred holy cows here that nobody is even willing to look at it. And then there’s also this ingrained habit of not dealing with touchy issues, whether it be corruption or political violence or discrimination.
JS: As a working journalist, what issues do you see as the most “touchy” today?
UG: Corruption is I think number one. And then there’s another simmering issue that at some point will explode on the scene, which is the rise of the indigenous people in Argentina, which it has not been very good at dealing with either. I think that will become more and more important as the years go by. The indigenous people’s rights issue is very mixed up with the environmental issue because the indigenous people feel the land is being spoilt and destroyed by mining companies and what’s going on with shale oil in Patagonia.
The whole environmental issue is something that Argentines feel very strongly about, whereas they don’t feel so strongly about corruption or political violence; they feel political violence is mostly justified. We’re not great believers in democracy, so we’re not very shocked when democracy is abandoned for any reason. But Argentines do feel very strongly about environmental issues. There are towns like Esquel that voted 80 percent against mining in their area, and then the government says “Well we’re gonna mine anyhow.” There are all these struggles going on in different places, La Famatina and all that happened with the cellulose plants in Uruguay.
JS: And at the same time there’s no recycling.
UG: No there isn’t! “Fascists who don’t follow orders.” But yeah, you know there’s a sinister side to it, because environmental and green issues are very mixed up with the fascist mindset as well. Many of the young Neo-Nazis in Germany have a very green, very back-to-the-woods mentality. So I don’t know if this kind of ‘this land is ours’ thing has to do with the environment. And strong feelings on environmental issues here have more to do with not wanting foreigners to take our gold than with actual real concern about the environment. It’s more protectionist and patriotic than really concerned about the future of the world’s natural resources.
JS: The major story now is of course the peso devaluation…
UG: Argentina seems to go through these cyclical things where every ten to twelve years we start flirting with chaos again, I mean we just can’t leave it alone. I’ve lived through this personally, what, three or four times already? 1989, 2001, and now again. And before 1975 with the Rodrigazo . . . you know I’ve been through this a lot of times. And you see them repeating the same mistakes every single time.
JS: Writing for The Guardian you must get the other side of things, the view from the UK, which is different from the view people here have of themselves.
UG: The view in the UK is mostly, “Exactly where is Argentina?” Honestly it is really difficult to compress what is happening in Argentina into a few paragraphs for the foreign press, because mostly it’s about hot air here. It’s one politician said that the other politician said that she said that he said, but there’s not actually anything happening. There’s no real story happening. I mean we haven’t had any incredible floods or hurricanes; actually they’re all self-invented problems. You spend all the money you have and you’re broke, and then you have to start all over again, and you do it four or five times in a generation. That’s the news.
V.S. Naipaul wrote that book The Return of Eva Perón, in which he says—he’s such a racist, he’s shocking and very discriminatory in his thinking about Argentina—but he says that Argentina has no history, that it’s like an African tribe where nothing actually happens. There’s a succession of events that never actually turns into a history because there’s no pattern, no line. So what’s happening today is tragic in a sense, because you see so many good honest hardworking people condemned to a meager existence because of the crazy irresponsible corrupt behavior of Argentina’s ruling class. And that ruling class can be old aristocratic families with estancias in Patagonia, or the new Peronist dynasties that have been in power in the provinces for decades, who are the new oligarchs just with a populist base.
And there are no good guys in the Argentine story. You look at all the politicians, every single politician, and with the exception of two or three people it’s really hard to find anybody honest to speak to. And this is so demoralizing because there’s no real problem. You know, what’s the problem? There are no hurricanes. It’s not the same everywhere, but much of Argentina is okay and there’s no huge national disaster.
JS: I read yesterday that 500,000 more people in the country are now officially poor.
UG: Yeah, I’ve seen it. I have this kind of still photo that I took in ’75 when I arrived compared to today, and there’s been a definite decay in public health and public schooling. There are these incredible figures going around now that half the kids who start high school don’t finish in Argentina. And the other half, the ones that do finish, have real problems with reading skills. The illiteracy rate has gone up. The infant mortality rate has gone up. The school attendance rates have gone down. So we have this kind of curve that goes up, and then it goes down, and then it goes up but it never goes up quite as high as the time before. It’s a stone skipping on water that jumps lower every time. And why? We’re blessed; if there’s any country in the world that’s been blessed by God it’s Argentina, in terms of natural resources, in terms of beauty, and in terms of human resources, because Argentina had this very socialist-minded policy in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—free schooling up to university level for everybody, free public health for everybody—which is still available today, it’s just not as good quality as it used to be.
The Ireland I grew up in was an extremely backward and an extremely poor country. I moved from the United States to Dublin in 1968 and it was the end of the world. There was no coffee in Dublin. There certainly weren’t Batman comics; there was nothing. It was an extremely poor country, probably the poorest in Western Europe. But what Ireland did have—not unlike Argentina—was an extremely well-educated population. So when Ireland became the Celtic tiger, what did they do? We had this incredible human wealth, incredibly well-educated people willing to work for less than they would anywhere else in Western Europe. This created the Irish boom.
When Kirchner took office in 2003 I thought, “They’re going to do an Ireland thing here.” We have this extremely well-educated population, so if we let some foreign investment in and let people come in and hire us, there will be a tremendous amount of work for us. Just like Indians; in India not everyone is well-educated but there are enough that it’s become a leader in Internet services. I thought Argentina could do what Ireland or India did, developing a prosperous computer and software industry and banking system. When Kirchner took office in 2003, I thought Argentina could really take off, if they don’t fuck it up. They had all this money from the soy that was coming in. And then they went crazy ideological insane. “Let’s all fight against Clarín . . .” You know how they bitch about Clarín here. [Editor’s note: Clarín is the highest-selling newspaper in Argentina, viewed as anti-Kirchner and censored by the government.] I write for the British press; have you read the Daily Mail? And Murdoch’s paper taps the phones of the royal family and publishes their conversation illegally. You’re worried about Clarín?
Argentines are so obsessed with stuff, you know, they’re obsessed by Malvinas and British imperialism. The British invaded Ireland in the year 1000, and they left in 1926. And they passed laws prohibiting Irishmen from owning anything other than one pig, one horse, and a small home. Ireland started the nineteenth century with eight million people and ended the nineteenth century with three million people. All the rest died in the famine or had to go to New York or Buenos Aires because of what the British did to them. So don’t talk to me about the fucking Falklands. They’ve only been there for 125 years, 150, 180, I don’t know. There’s so much more to be done. And I’ve always felt about the Falklands that if we just do our stuff right, the Falklands will fall into our lap. How could they not otherwise? They’re right next door.
Argentina is frustrating because you feel that if you could just put a screwdriver into it you could fix it and it would work right. But no, it can’t be put right. And I think that the real measuring stick is that once, Argentines would compare themselves with Europe, saying how much better off they were, but now we’re comparing ourselves to Peru and Colombia and Brazil. And the truth is that we’ve been left behind in the pages of history. We’re interesting, we’re kind of an odd screwball case of how you can do everything wrong, but . . . it’s a good place for nostalgia, but not a great place for the future.
JS: On a completely different note, I wanted to talk a little about your music.
UG: I have two musical sides. I have the things I did with my band Los Helicópteros, and then I have my own music which I’m doing now, more thinking man’s music. You know, when I left the Herald and started making music, I was very aware of the fact that having been through hell I wasn’t writing about it, and that instead I was taking this kind of light-hearted approach to life, let’s have fun and dance. I think that was my . . . my rescue ticket out of the insanity. I’d actually been there, interviewing fucking [Jorge Rafael] Videla [dictator of Argentina from 1976 to 1981], which I did for the BBC. But I couldn’t put it in music then. Or at least not in music that I did publicly. Maybe I put it in some private things, but not publicly.
I’m going to be who I was when I was seventeen, eighteen, before they visited their horror upon my world.
I decided to say, you know what? These bastard generals are not going to steal the joy and the youth out of my life. Because by then I felt, oh God, I’m twenty-seven, I’m twenty-eight, my life is over, what can I do now. Especially then, with the youth culture, where anybody over twenty-three was suspect. So I felt, I’m not going to let them steal that from me. I’m going to be who I was when I was seventeen, eighteen, before they visited their horror upon my world. And I think that was an effort to take that back. And it resonated, because it was immediately very successful, and now I’m grateful for it, because just as people don’t want to deal with me because of my work as a writer, they’re very willing to deal with me as a musician. I get lots of very positive feedback and lots of love from all kinds of people. Especially from people in their late thirties, early forties today who grew up with it and say, “I got married, I fell in love with that song.”
In a sense, my life has been kind of magical, because I’ve visited all these different planets. I got to be a writer, and I got to be the brave journalist, and I got to be a rock musician. I grew up pledging allegiance to the flag of the United States, and then I got to be the Celtic poet walking in the rain in Dublin miserable and wet and cold and sad, and now I get to be this guy in Birkenstocks sitting in the sun in Buenos Aires at age sixty. It’s been a kind of complicated but very full experience, though I’d trade it in of course for a hit record in the United States. But this is what I got.
JS: What’s it like being a journalist here now?
UG: What makes it hard for me is that though I wasn’t born here, I’m from here more than others are. You know, I think it’s easier if you just arrive here and have one week to write the story and then leave. It actually is probably clearer. Journalism is a triangle, you know? There’s the journalist, and the reader, and the subject matter. And you try to keep it equidistant, because if you’re too close to the subject matter then the reader moves further away, and if you’re too close to your reader then the truth moves further away.
I wrote that story about Cristina, which was the most read story in the Observer [the Guardian Sunday edition] the day before yesterday. I think there are hard economic times everywhere, and people are looking to see what’s happening elsewhere, because it could be happening to them soon. There are lots of Italians in Argentina right now. I went a couple of years ago to Italy to look at some archives over there, Nazi stuff, and had some young Italians say to me: “We are the walking dead.” Because they have no future there. There’s no work; there are people in their forties who have never really held a job, and haven’t been able to find one, and they’ll have no kids. There’s this whole thing going on in Europe where nobody is having kids, and the population is really old. You walk around the streets of Rome and everyone is fifty years old; there are no young people. In Prenzlauer Berg in Berlin, there’s one neighborhood where there are lots of kids, but mostly across Europe it’s a very aging population.
Which is actually what makes Argentina very exciting. It’s packed with young people. You have a European population but not with the European age pyramid. So I think that despite all the political and economic chaos and simmering violence you feel here—political violence—it’s very exciting in the fact that this tremendous number of young people is here. And very culturally curious young people. Just the amount of theater that goes on, the amount of reading, the poetry . . .
You know, it’s not that bad here. You can go to Uruguay, which is like Argentina without all the bad shit. There’s not the political hatred that goes on here; they are well-educated, they are fairly respectful of each other. Here there’s this constant invasion of privacy. If only we could at some point get rid of the terrible corruption in government and get some people who actually know how to run things . . . in the meantime it’s fun trying to decipher it for the world.
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