Hatchet Man

Q: What's a nice guy like Alberto Ibargen doing at a place like the Miami Herald? A: Exactly what his money-grubbing bosses want him to do.

IbargYen refuses to comment on the case. A trial is scheduled for September 1999.

In addition to problems with hiring and firing, staffers questioned IbargYen's editorial judgment. "He constantly bombarded you with photocopies of articles, notes, suggestions, and orders," says Manuel Ballagas, who served as the paper's business editor before leaving over a pay dispute. "Sometimes they would be notes about neighbors or friends when they started businesses. You had to be on call for all these little favors for his friends."

Perhaps no other event has defined the relationship between Miami's Cuban community and the Herald and El Nuevo as the vitriolic campaign Jorge Mas Canosa and his Cuban American National Foundation waged against the two papers in 1992. The conflict -- sparked in part by a Herald editorial opposing pending federal legislation about the embargo against Cuba -- made national news. IbargYen says he was aware of the controversy that preceded his arrival.

In that high-profile conflict, Mas Canosa repeatedly bullied both papers, on the radio and in opinion pieces that ran in the Miami Herald, with strident accusations of biased coverage. Faded remnants of the now-famous bumper stickers that declared "I don't believe the Herald" could be seen around the city for years. Such was the extent of Mas Canosa's poder convocatoria, literally "power to summon," that negative coverage of him and his Cuban American National Foundation came to signify an assault on all Cuban Americans.

The battle grew intensely personal. "We are not trying to intimidate you, Mr. Lawrence," wrote Mas Canosa in a Miami Herald opinion piece. "You are already intimidated by your own conscience, lacking a credible rationale to defend the injustices and lack of sensitivity by the Herald toward our community."

Miami Cubans who had defended the Herald when Mas Canosa attacked it were taken aback when IbargYen's El Nuevo published a glowing tribute to Mas Canosa, in the form of a special supplement, after he died this past November 23. "Frequently the leader and the paper had disagreements," wrote IbargYen in the introduction. "In the future, the paper and various leaders may on occasion disagree. This is a normal part of exercising our rights in a democracy. But today, however, we want that life and this homage to serve as a point of convergence for all the community. This El Nuevo Herald supplement is dedicated, with affection and respect, to a life involved with a cause in which we all believe."

Only one story in the fifteen-page supplement dwelled on controversies Mas Canosa had incited. None of the exile leader's long-time critics were quoted. IbargYen justifies the decision to publish it. "I felt that his impact on the community had been big enough so that something was needed that was not just a news story," he says.

IbargYen was clearly sensitive to how El Nuevo Herald covered Mas Canosa while the man was alive, as well. In fact, he instituted a policy whereby all Mas Canosa stories required his review before publication. "I think he had a sense that the [Miami Herald] had become obsessed with Mas," explains El Nuevo opinion page editor Ramon Mestre. "If it were my paper, I'd want to see the stories too."

IbargYen insists that the review policy pertained to all sensitive subjects, including stories about Miami Mayor Joe Carollo, former Mayor Xavier Suarez, and Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez. "I believe our coverage of Mas has been tough and fair," he says. "There was so much tension about anything we did that concerns this man."

Former El Nuevo columnist Jose Raul Alfonso believes the paper deferred to powerful exile interests. The 52-year-old Alfonso spent almost two decades of his life in service to Fidel Castro's government, first as a fifteen-year-old combatant repelling invaders at the Bay of Pigs and finally ending his career with the revolution as a media analyst for Cuban military intelligence. He also found time to study to be a surgical assistant. In 1980, however, he was denounced as a counterrevolutionary for criticizing the Soviet Union and suggesting a dialogue with the United States. He served eight years in prison. Six months after his release, he left for Miami.

After seven years as an assistant to a doctor and a medical clinic manager, he founded a muckraking newspaper that, after several incarnations, is now called AQue Pasa ... Miami!. Impressed by Alfonso's hard-hitting style, Ramon Mestre asked him to contribute a weekly column that would run on Fridays on El Nuevo's opinion pages. Alfonso titled his column "Acapella Politica"; it debuted March 6, 1998.

His first three columns took aim at corruption and influence-peddling in Miami. Alfonso was not shy about naming members of the county's power elite as primary suspects. On Friday, March 27, Alfonso opened up El Nuevo expecting to see his fourth column. It wasn't in the paper. He called Mestre for an explanation and was told the editor was in Venezuela. He subsequently learned, he says, that IbargYen had killed the article and canceled the entire column.

"It was my judgment that it wasn't a column we wanted to continue to run," IbargYen says, refusing requests for elaboration.

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