He never stopped playing with fire
In the 1970s in Latin America, democracies were falling, one after another, and the power was being taken over by right-wing dictatorships. In order to defend the country from the Marxist revolution, and with a quiet support of the United States, the five dictators in Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina and Uruguay were carrying out the Operation Condor. The campaign of political repression and state terror aimed to fight the left-wing opposition.
In Chile, General Augusto Pinochet led the coup d’etat in 1973. He overthrown socialist President Salvadore Allende, who – since his election in 1970 – had been introducing reforms modelled on socialist states. The Pinochet Dictatorship lasted until 1989.
The repressed leftists who had not managed to flee the continent, found themselves in a cul-de-sac. The estimated number of victims reaches thousands.
Before 10 am, armed men entered the office of an organization looking after refugees in Santiago de Chile. It was the last day of the year 1986. “Which one is Roberto Kozak, a communist son of the bitch?” A tall, elegantly clad man stood up from the floor, where all the employees were laying, tied up. They put a gun to his head and began the interrogation. The militants of General Augusto Pinochet’s death squads were looking for money, arms and proofs of Kozak’s participation in a failed attempt to assassinate the dictator. After an hour of fending off accusations, Kozak ran to free his colleagues.
In the years following the coup d’etat of 1973, Roberto Kozak and other diplomats helped free and emigrate from Chile between 25,000 and 35,000 political prisoners.
He was dubbed “Schindler of Latin America.”
Born in Argentina, where his ancestors had arrived from Ukraine, Kozak had 11 siblings, and started working at a bookstore in Buenos Aires at the age of 9 – the owner let him read whenever there were no clients in the store.
He discovered engineering science, mechanics, world politics. He graduated from a polytechnic, but he dreamt of travels. In 1968, he came across an job offer at the Intergovernmental Committee for European Migration (ICEM), soon transformed into International Organization for Migration, as part of the United Nations. After two years of working in Argentina, Kozak moved to Europe, where he completed a course in diplomacy and English, simultaneously working at the ICEM office in Geneva. He was ultimately sent to Chile on a diplomatic mission. The junta of General Pinochet took over the power in the country soon after Kozak’s arrival.
“Roberto set off on a humongous mission, but he was not alone,” his wife Sylvia stresses. “He was part of a broad network. He would consider it most egocentric to take the whole credit upon himself. […] He was very keen on team work.”
Kozak led a double life. He managed to get access to influential servicemen, politicians, officials and members of the secret police. He negotiated release of prisoners, most of them members of the Chilean left, using his diplomatic skills, his natural patience and crates of imported whisky.
“While the party thrown for the military men was in full swing at Roberto’s house, the attic was packed with refugees and political prisoners,” his collaborator said. “He never stopped playing with fire.”
The last decade of his life was marked by his combat with cancer. In 2015, a quarter of an hour before he passed away, upon hearing the news on an increasing wave of refugees on the Mediterranean, he said to his wife: “If I were younger, I would be there now.”