Nobody in early 1976 was aware of the scale of the killing programme that Argentina’s military were secretly starting to execute. “At the beginning, we saw the military as saviours who had come to deliver us from the violence of the ultra-right death squads and far left terrorists that had desolated Argentina during the previous government of Isabel Perón,” says Robert Cox, the British, former editor of the Buenos Aires Herald.
In 1976, the Herald celebrated its centennial anniversary. The tiny English-language daily served the country’s dwindling community of Anglo-Argentines, descendants in large part of the British families who had moved to Argentina to build the country’s sprawling railroad network in the late 19th century. The paper had provided them with cricket-match scores and coverage of the garden parties in the suburb of Hurlingham where a large number of them had settled.
But then Cox realised that the thousands of people being arrested by the military were not being transferred to prison cells to be tried for alleged revolutionary activities. They were being made to physically “disappear”, based on lists of victims drawn up by communist-hating crackpot generals. So he decided to devote all the power of his small paper towards reporting this crime to the world.
The Herald soon became a magnet for anyone, including a few brave Catholic priests, involved in trying to steal victims from the clutch of the dictatorship that took power in 1976 and would not release its grasp on Argentina until after it was defeated by Britain in the Falklands war six years later.
That the Provincial Superior of the Society of Jesus in Argentina, Jorge Bergoglio, was not among those who put themselves publicly at the forefront of that dangerous enterprise, exemplified by the Herald’s public confrontation with the military, has left his role during that period open to interpretation now that he has become Pope Francis.
For some with impeccable human-rights credentials, such as Argentina’s 1980 Nobel peace prize-winner Adolfo Pérez Esquivel, himself a victim of the dictatorship, who was tortured and held without trial for 14 months in 1977, Bergoglio is stainless. “There were bishops who were accomplices, but not Bergoglio,” he says. “There is no link relating him to the dictatorship.”
Pérez Esquivel is certainly right regarding the charge of collaboration. There were bishops and priests who sided openly with the dictatorship; Bergoglio was not among them. As a matter of fact, with his ascension to the throne of Rome, various witnesses have started coming forward to paint a formerly unseen picture of Bergoglio moving secretly behind the scenes to rescue a number of priests whose lives were in danger from the military death squads that began roaming Argentina.
“I was the exact prototype of what used to be called “third world” priests,” says Miguel La Civita, who in 1976 was a close collaborator of Bishop Enrique Angelelli, murdered by the dictatorship for his work organising the poor into labour unions and manufacturing cooperatives in the northern province of La Rioja. “After Angelelli’s murder, Bergoglio put us under his protection,” La Civita says. He claims Bergoglio was secretly active “helping people who were persecuted by the military”, hiding them at the school he headed in Buenos Aires.
Today, Argentina is a far cry from the tortured nation that emerged when the military returned to their barracks in December 1983. Three decades of democratic rule have seen tremendous gains in individual freedoms, such as when Argentina became the first country in Latin America to legalise gay marriage three years ago, a law that was staunchly opposed by Bergoglio.
For a long time after their departure from the “Casa Rosada” the military still found outspoken supporters who were willing to praise them for their bloody defeat of leftwing terrorism. Such praise, except from the rightwing loony fringe, is today unthinkable.
In the trials against the military junta in 1986 it was proven that the terrorist threat had been deliberately over-magnified by the generals to justify their killing instinct. “There was no civil war, as the military wanted us to believe, that was a rabbit hunt,” Julio Strassera, the prosecutor who sent the generals to jail told me once, repeating words he had spoken at the trial.
The figures back him up. While at least 20,000 people were made to “disappear” by the military between 1976 and 1983 (some human-rights groups put the figure at 30,000), only some 600 people died as the result of terrorist activity during the 20 years between 1960 and 1983 in Argentina, according to the bloated statistics put out by the military themselves back then.
Much is being written since Bergoglio’s election to the papacy about the two Jesuit priests Orlando Yorio and Franz Jalics, who were kidnapped by the military and held and tortured for five months, in 1976. His critics blame Bergoglio for their ordeal, saying he ousted them from the Jesuit Order for refusing to comply with his order that they stop working among the poor in the slum of Flores in Buenos Aires, leaving them unprotected from abduction by the military.
His supporters claim the contrary. “He was trying to save their lives by urging them to quit the slum,” says Alicia de Oliveira, a human rights lawyer and lifelong friend of Bergoglio.
The truth lies probably somewhere in the middle. In early 1976, when the two Jesuits were taken, nobody was yet aware of the scale of the killing programme the military were secretly involved in. It was not known that arrests such as that of Yorio and Jalics could end in death. The charge that Bergoglio failed to sufficiently protect them must be seen in the context of that early moment, when the full danger the military represented had not yet been grasped. Yet former Herald editor Cox, who would confront the generals who had taken over the “Casa Rosada,” the rose-colored presidential palace only a few blocks away from his Herald offices in Buenos Aires, with lists of desaparecidos demanding their release, wishes Bergoglio had acted more openly, exposing the crimes of the military.
“Bergoglio didn’t speak out,” Cox says now, from Charleston, North Carolina, where he and his family were forced to flee in 1979, after the military put them under threat.
At the same time, he disputes the critics who say his public silence renders Bergoglio morally unfit for the papacy. “They don’t understand the complexity of Bergoglio’s position back then when things were so dangerous,” Cox says. “They can’t see how difficult it was to operate under those circumstances.”