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 Chile’s 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. Chile’s 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 Chile’s 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 Chile’s 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 Nación’s plant, with the acquiescence of the populist president at the time, Carlos Ibañez, who was Sainte-Marie’s 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 Nación’s 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 stories–the more gruesome the better–and 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 idioms–known 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 Johnson’s 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.”

In 1970, Sainte-Marie’s friend, Senator Allende (whom he had known since childhood), ran for president on a radical platform of agrarian reform, nationalization of Chile’s copper mines, and state control of the economy. He had run twice before and lost, but this time he had two significant new assets: his party had gained control of one of the largest radio networks, and there was Sainte-Marie and Clarín, which was selling 150,000 copies a day all over Chile, putting it in the league with the staid dean of the Chilean press, El Mercurio.

The paper lavished favorable coverage on Allende and another reformist candidate. But Sainte-Marie was most effective in ridiculing the right-wing candidate, Jorge Alessandri, a bachelor former president whom Clarín referred to relentlessly as ”La Señora.”

Overcoming huge odds, including a covert plan by the CIA to discredit him, Allende won a plurality and was confirmed by Congress. An abortive coup attempt, sponsored by the CIA, ended in the assassination of the commander of the Chilean army. But Chile’s democracy survived, and Allende was inaugurated in October 1970, promising a unique political experiment: to bring socialism not by violent revolution but by electoral victories.

John Dinges is the co-founder of the investigative journalism center CIPERchile.cl in Santiago, Chile. He has written three books about military dictatorships and human rights in Latin America. The most recent is The Condor Years: How Pinochet and his Allies Brought Terrorism to Three Continents. He is a professor of journalism at Columbia University.