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."

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.

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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