Adios, Amigo

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

Lawrence says the resignation took him by surprise. "It was all a huge misunderstanding," he says. While he admits proposing that Vargas Llosa write a column addressing his role in his father's campaign, and suggesting that future articles dealing with Peru identify Vargas Llosa as the son of a defeated presidential candidate, he says Vargas Llosa misinterpreted the intent of his request. "There's nothing wrong with him writing a column, but as a matter of our credibility we ought to be telling readers upfront that Mr. Vargas Llosa's father ran for president against the current president." Lawrence claims he never accused Vargas Llosa of disgracing the Herald.

In a February 9 letter, Lawrence asked Vargas Llosa to reconsider his resignation. "Roberto [Suarez] and I very much want you to stay where you have begun a wonderful career and where you have made such great contributions," he wrote. Other executives, including Clark Hoyt, vice president for news at Knight-Ridder; Joe Natoli, Herald general manager; and Mark Seibel, director of international operations, also lobbied Vargas Llosa to return.

In the meantime, criticism of Vargas Llosa continued and intensified when a similar article by his father was published in the Spanish daily El Pais. On February 13, Santiago Sanguineti, a Peruvian citizen who has been linked to the Peruvian intelligence service, submitted a formal petition to Peru's top federal prosecutor requesting that the two men be charged with treason. Charges were subsequently filed. In addition, Sanguineti asked a judge presiding over Lima's criminal court to accept charges accusing the Vargas Llosas of defaming President Fujimori. Peruvian courts allow individuals to file criminal charges before a judge, who can accept or reject the accusations. In this case, the accusations were accepted.

International outcry was immediate. The Inter American Press Association issued a statement criticizing the Peruvian government, and Americas Watch offered to represent the two men. Latin American newspapers took up the cause. The Peruvian government subsequently dropped the treason charges on March 15. The criminal charges for defaming the president are still pending.

While Vargas Llosa says he suspected that Knight-Ridder was more concerned about the timing of his resignation than his actual departure, he admits that evidence of high-level support for his ideas within Knight-Ridder had an effect. He decided to return to work. "When you have the whole company begging you to go back and saying how wonderful you are, it becomes illogical to refuse," he explains. "It just would have been very stubborn on my part." Vargas Llosa says he was also assured that he would be able to write about whatever subjects he chose, including Peru.

Soon after he returned, he was sent to a seminar for newspaper publishers at Northwestern. For a few weeks, he believed that the situation at El Nuevo was improving. Then on March 31, he says he was called to a breakfast meeting with El Nuevo publisher Suarez, Lawrence, and Hoyt from Knight Ridder. "They said that the changes I had suggested [in the October critique] weren't going to be made, that they had decided to keep management as it was, and they knew that would be unacceptable to me," Vargas Llosa recalls. Hoyt offered to schedule a meeting with Knight-Ridder the following week to discuss other positions for him within the corporation. "For months we had been talking about change," Vargas Llosa says. "But in El Nuevo not in Knight-Ridder. I'm a journalist, not a bureaucrat." He resigned again, and this time he didn't look back.

"I've regretted his terrible misunderstanding of the situation," Lawrence says. "This is a person with extraordinary potential. He could have had my job someday. We were offering him opportunities that very few people in their lives get a chance for."

"If that was the case, then why did I resign?" asks Vargas Llosa. "I didn't agree with treating El Nuevo as a minor enterprise, as something I had grown out of. I was there, as a Hispanic, to make El Nuevo a better newspaper."

Jim DeFede contributed to this article.

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