Adios, Amigo

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

He strongly advocated that the Spanish paper be given the resources that would enable it to publish independently of the Herald. "Basically what I was proposing to do was to let the paper grow in a way that it would compete with the English paper, and then let the market decide which paper was strongest," he says. "I think that got [Dave Lawrence] very scared."

Last January, soon after Vargas Llosa handed Lawrence his critique, Knight-Ridder released the results of an extensive survey of the Hispanic market in South Florida. According to Vargas Llosa, one of the key issues examined in the survey was the effect of selling El Nuevo as a distinct product. Since the paper first appeared in November 1987, after the demise of an earlier Spanish-language version of the Herald (known as El Miami Herald, which was published from 1976-1987), it has been impossible to purchase El Nuevo separately from the Herald. A six-month subscription to El Nuevo costs an additional thirteen dollars. As a result of this arrangement, it is difficult to calculate how much El Nuevo's week-day circulation of 101,000 artificially inflates circulation figures for the Herald, which is currently 380,000. According to the Knight-Ridder study, separating the papers would cause a substantial drop in Herald subscribers. "Sunday Miami Herald sales may drop as much as 30,000, or sixteen percent," the study warned. Citing the figures, Lawrence told a small gathering of top editors and vice presidents of the Herald and El Nuevo that the company had decided to continue to publish the two papers together.

Today Vargas Llosa criticizes the decision, pointing out that a serious study would have examined the effect of a separation on advertisers, and take into account the potential of increased revenue from an independent El Nuevo. "There's no question they commissioned the study knowing beforehand what [results] they wanted to show," he says.

Vargas Llosa began to have doubts about Lawrence's commitment to El Nuevo. He wondered about the Herald publisher's respect for the paper and his willingness to let it grow. After a year working for Lawrence, Vargas Llosa says he also felt increasingly uncomfortable with what he perceived as Lawrence's tendency to confuse journalism with public relations. For Vargas Llosa this awkward warping of journalistic values was epitomized in a January 15 column written by Lawrence, shortly after the results of the Knight-Ridder study were released. The column recounted Lawrence's recent visit to Peru and his impressions of the Peruvian president, Alberto Fujimori, who had defeated Vargas Llosa's father in the 1990 elections.

Lawrence painted a relentlessly sympathetic portrait of Fujimori, describing in painstaking detail a trip the two had taken to a Peruvian shantytown. "The president seems quite a 'regular guy,'" Lawrence effused, detailing Fujimori's modest attire. The Herald publisher let nary an opportunity for a self-serving presidential comment slip by. "Do you feel very safe, Mr President?" he inquired, as the two men discussed the Shining Path, Peru's once formidable guerrilla group. "Oh sure," responded the fearless Fujimori, "If the president is afraid of the Shining Path, all the people will be afraid."

Only in a passing reference in a sidebar entitled "Completely Untrue" did Lawrence acknowledge that Fujimori committed a widely criticized "self-coup" in 1992. The sidebar did not include the details surrounding the coup: Fujimori had dissolved the congress and the judiciary, arrested opponents, and cancelled the constitution. No mention was made of a recent Amnesty International report that counted 4000 political prisoners and asserted that "torture was frequently reported" in Peru.

Three days later Vargas Llosa responded in his biweekly column with a chronicle of human rights abuses that have occurred under Fujimori's government. In a second column, published February 7, Vargas Llosa characterized Fujimori as a fantoche (a stooge) and identified Peru as the aggressor in its recent border conflict with Ecuador. The second column set off a blitz of criticism in the Peruvian media and incensed the Peruvian community in Miami.

A local group identifying itself as "Pro-Peru Representing the Peruvian Institutions of Florida" castigated Vargas Llosa for his article. On February 16, the group published a statement in both El Nuevo and the Herald stating: "Mr. Vargas Llosa shames the traditions of fair, impartial reporting and mixes personal grievances and unfair reporting in an attempt to ridicule the defensive action taken by engineer Fujimori, president of Peru and supreme commander of the Peruvian armed forces."

Concerned about the reaction caused by the second column, Lawrence summoned the young editor and Roberto Suarez to his office on February 8. According to Vargas Llosa, Lawrence angrily accused him of "disgracing the credibility of the company" and urged him to write another column explaining his role in his father's losing political campaign (he was the spokesperson). Vargas Llosa recalls Lawrence saying, "I give you my strong advice not to write about Peru because you are biased," and ordering him to accompany any future articles about Peru with a disclaimer stating that he was the son of a defeated presidential candidate.

Immediately after the meeting, Vargas Llosa wrote his resignation. "If I had any respect for myself, I had to go," he recalls.

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