Victor Pey runs his private crusade to restore some ideological balance to the Chilean press from a modest second-floor apartment in the middle-class Ñuñoa neighborhood in Santiago. There is a worn brown rug, a chair with a broken back in front of a computer, and shelves of books, magazines, and photos from his variegated past. Pey is an erect man with pale skin and an aura of always being in a hurry. Now, recently recovered from a heart ailment, at his age he is understandably impatient to settle the dispute over Clarín and get on with the business of building a new newspaper.
Although a civil engineer by training and a businessman by vocation, he has been a fighter in political causes since growing up in the Catalonia region of Spain. During the Spanish civil war in the 1930s he helped convert a Barcelona automobile plant into an arms factory for the Republican (leftist) side. That led to his first flight into exile. He escaped to a refugee camp in France after the rightist military, led by Francisco Franco, defeated the forces of the Republican government.
In 1939 he arrived in Chiles Valparaiso harbor on a French ship with 2,100 other Spanish refugees. Pey had met the Chilean consul in Paris, the poet Pablo Neruda, who arranged for the exiles to find a home in Chile. Chiles well-organized leftist parties, among the largest and most vibrant in Latin America, warmly embraced the refugees, and the Spaniards quickly began to prosper in Chiles business and political life.
Pey got into the newspaper business through friendship and by chance. While running an engineering firm involved in making improvements to Chiles ports in the 1940s and 1950s, he developed a circle of well-connected friends. They included the Socialist senator (and later president) Salvador Allende, and the future founder of Clarín, Darío Sainte-Marie, who was then the editor of the government-owned newspaper, La Nación.
From its creation, Clarín was a textbook example of the interconnected nature of government, political power, and journalism in Chile. The new newspaper was first printed in La Nacións plant, with the acquiescence of the populist president at the time, Carlos Ibañez, who was Sainte-Maries secret partner. The inspiration for the paper was the realization that the next government, expected to be controlled by the conservative right, would take over La Nación and leave the progressive forces of the center-left without a newspaper.
True to form, the new government that assumed power in 1958 quickly fired Sainte-Marie. It also expelled the start-up Clarín from La Nacións plant as soon as it became evident that its editorial line was, to put it mildly, critical of the rightist parties and business interests that made up the new regime. Without editorial offices or a printing press, the increasingly popular new paper improvised with antique flat-bed presses purchased at scrap-iron prices.
Enter Victor Pey. Sainte-Marie asked him to organize the physical plant of the newspaper, and specifically to buy and install new presses imported from East Germany. The paper flourished. It was the 1960s, a time of feverish political activity and the mobilization of peasants and workers in Chile. The paper specialized in racy pictures, police storiesthe more gruesome the betterand ad hominem attacks and hilarious send-ups of the pomposities of the Chilean aristocracy. Objectivity, or even accuracy, were not words used to describe Clarín.
The readers loved it. It was the first paper written in the spicy idiomsknown as ”Chilenismos”of the middle and lower classes. Sainte-Marie wrote a regular column under the pen name ”Volpone,”gleefully fashioning himself in the image of the unscrupulous trickster who is the main character in Ben Johnsons seventeenth-century satire. ”The soul of the paper was always Sainte-Marie,”Pey tells me. ”Sometimes he had to put another journalist in charge because there were problems with suits for libel and calumny and he had to go to jail. But he was always the one who ran the paper.”