Adios, Amigo

The short and sour career of El Nuevo's Alvaro Vargas Llosa

El Nuevo Herald, the Miami Herald's Spanish-language sister paper, is an odd hybrid of American and Latin journalistic conventions. While El Nuevo is considered to be autonomous by the Miami Herald Publishing Co., which produces both newspapers, it is, in fact, a supplement of the English-language paper. The confusion is evident in the uncertain responsibilities of upper management, according to a top editor who recently resigned after giving up a struggle to increase the independence and improve the quality of El Nuevo.

Twin notices published in both the Spanish and English newspapers on April 4 attributed Alvaro Vargas Llosa's resignation to "differences in focus and philosophy." But the former editor of the opinion section uses far harsher words in describing why he left. "They want El Nuevo to be a second-class enterprise whose purpose is twofold," Vargas Llosa declares. "They want to prevent the Miami Herald from being hurt in circulation, and they want to offer El Nuevo as a token to the Hispanic community."

While El Nuevo has a separate editorial staff, the paper relies heavily on the resources of the Herald. Most stories are translated from English and Herald advertising employees frequently handle El Nuevo accounts as well. The intimate relationship creates problems for leaders of El Nuevo, who find that the award-winning English-language paper is largely irrelevant to their readers but who lack the resources to create its Spanish language equivalent.

The paper's management collapsed in turmoil in November 1993 after its executive editor left at the behest of Dave Lawrence, who oversees both El Nuevo and the Herald. Following that upheaval, Lawrence began to play an even greater role at El Nuevo. Instead of hiring a new executive editor, Lawrence decided to bring in Vargas Llosa to head the opinion section only (known as "Opiniones"), a position previously held by the executive editor.

Extraordinary efforts were made to recruit the 27-year-old journalist, son of acclaimed writer and one-time Peruvian presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa. First, there was the matter of his $110,000 salary, augmented by an annual performance-based bonus of $30,000. Then there was the question of his immigration status. It took Herald lawyers two months of legal wrangling to convince the Justice Department to award Vargas Llosa a H1-B visa, a category reserved for individuals of international prominence or renown.

Once he arrived at El Nuevo, Vargas Llosa's responsibilities blurred. Technically, the head of "Opiniones" is limited to managing a network of columnists and contributors to the two-page section. (Unsigned editorials representing the sentiment of the Miami Herald Publishing Co. are not published in El Nuevo because it is considered a Herald supplement.) However, Vargas Llosa says his input was frequently sought on newsroom matters, and his bonus hinged, in part, on his ability to improve morale.

In fact, Vargas Llosa says he accepted the job with the understanding that Lawrence and El Nuevo publisher Roberto Suarez wanted him to improve the newspaper overall. "I realized that the Nuevo Herald was potentially a very important newspaper," Vargas Llosa explains. "It was located in the right place, at the right time, to be the main source of Spanish-language news for the whole hemisphere."

Lawrence acknowledges that he had great expectations for Vargas Llosa, calling him "one of the most talented young people in this business." The problem was that he lacked seasoning, Lawrence says. When he was recruited, Vargas Llosa had been working as a columnist in Spain, and Lawrence says he felt the young journalist needed more experience in Knight-Ridder before he was given added authority. Meanwhile, in the absence of an executive editor, high-level decisions fell to a defacto triumvirate of El Nuevo executives made up of Suarez, Vargas Llosa, and managing editor Barbara Gutierrez, and monitored by Lawrence.

By most accounts Vargas Llosa thrived as editor of "Opiniones", tapping his farflung circle of Latin American literary contacts for new contributors. Among the writers he published were Nobel prize winners Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Octavio Paz, as well as Carlos Fuentes, Guillermo Cabrera Infante, and leftist intellectual Mario Benedetti. Vargas Llosa deliberately set out to provoke debate, commissioning articles from Cuban Foreign Minister Roberto Robaina and Fidel Castro's daughter Alina Fernandez Revuelta. To make room for new contributors, he cut back on writers whose hard-line anti-Castro views had once been synonymous with El Nuevo.

"Both Dave and Roberto were supportive in the beginning," Vargas Llosa recalls. "I think they were generally happy to see the pages open up and have some fresh air come in." After about a year of informal discussions, Lawrence approached Vargas Llosa and asked him to outline his ideas for a similar reform of the news department. Remembers Vargas Llosa: "He said to me, 'The paper is in chaos, the relationships between people are tearing apart, and the managing editor and submanaging editor are good people but they haven't grown into their jobs.' He said, 'We need a shakeup for this thing. We need a new vision.'"

Vargas Llosa complied, and in mid-October 1994 he submitted a memo detailing his vision for transforming El Nuevo into one of the leaders in Spanish-language print media. Among his suggestions: bolstering the Latin American section of the paper with an international network of stringers, expanding the local section to include more original reporting by El Nuevo reporters, creating an independent business section, and appointing an executive editor. "We are not looking for news aggressively, digging into stories, producing our own material," he wrote. "We are, [on] the whole, mere recipients of news that falls onto us from the sky and translators of The Miami Herald. We have a poor, small section on Latin America, a half-baked section on local news, which has very few initiatives in a town where local news should be making the front page almost every day, a section called 'Galeria' that lives off wire services and misses the enormous cultural activity going on in this town. Our titles and headlines are unattractive at best, and sometimes so wrong as to contradict the information below them or to make no sense at all. Our Spanish is many times incorrect." Vargas Llosa also criticized the paper for focusing so intensely on Cuba "in a market which is more diverse and pluralistic by the day." Moreover, he noted, "we are not even covering Cuban news with as much imagination and tenacity as we should."

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