United Press International ended 83 years of colorful journalistic history when it pulled the plug this summer on operations in Latin America as part of an announced strategy to move in new directions as an online information provider.
The Spanish-language wire--curiously known within the company as "Chester"--was once the dominant source of international news south of the Rio Grande. And where Spanish went, English-speaking reporters followed, filing dispatches for UPI's newspaper and broadcast clients around the world.
But by the time the Latin American service folded July 2, it had suffered a series of blows that began when parent E.W. Scripps Co. unloaded UPI in 1982.
The hard-pressed new owners sold the vital overseas photo service to Reuters in 1984. The following year, several major newspapers in Latin America canceled UPI's news service when the agency was taken over by Mexican publisher Mario Vázquez Raña, who was suspected of ties to Mexico's ruling clique. The Saudi investors who bought UPI in 1992 cut costs by closing offices in Bogotá, Buenos Aires, Caracas, Lima, Montevideo, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. When the end came this summer, only Mexico City and Santiago, Chile, were still operating, with stringers covering other areas.
"The constant reduction of the service meant that in the end, the loss of UPI had little impact on Latin American news coverage," says Alberto J. Schazin, a consultant at La Nación of Buenos Aires and former UPI vice president for Latin America and the Caribbean. "The disappearance of UPI [from the region] is more significant historically, as the death of a U.S. company that was a leader in this field."
United Press, as UPI was then known, ventured into South America in 1916, when it was a struggling 9-year-old wire service battling the established Associated Press at a time when dispatches were transmitted by telegraphers tapping out Morse code.
The UP got a foothold because La Nación newspaper of Buenos Aires wanted news from both sides in World War I, and the French agency Havas, which then dominated South America, patriotically refused to carry German military communiques.
The deal with La Nación lasted only two years, but UP then managed to sign up Buenos Aires' other great newspaper, La Prensa, beginning a long and profitable relationship.
United Press was soon providing a comprehensive report to newspapers throughout the continent--later expanding to the Caribbean, Mexico and Central America. UP (UPI after it merged with Hearst's International News Service in 1958) became a familiar logo throughout the hemisphere. Working for "OO-pee" was a goal of many Latin American journalists and a source of pride for the gringos who joined them.
There were bureaus in every major Latin American capital and internal services in Argentina, Brazil and Chile distributing a mix of international and domestic news. Political tales and war stories abound. Two Bolivian presidents--Hernan Siles Zuazo and Victor Paz Estenssoro--worked as translators in the Lima bureau during periods of exile in Peru. Elderly messengers in the Mexico City bureau claimed that a young Fidel Castro dropped in from time to time during his exile in Mexico in the 1950s, ostensibly to read the baseball scores.
Castro later closed the UPI and AP bureaus in Havana. He had a special reason for resenting UPI: In December 1956, a few days after Castro began the guerrilla campaign that brought him to power, the agency's Havana bureau filed an exclusive dispatch--based on an erroneous internal Cuban military report--saying he had been killed in battle.
Staffers in Santiago survived a battle of their own in September 1973 when Gen. Augusto Pinochet led a bloody military uprising against President Salvador Allende. Loyalist snipers opened fire on the Defense Ministry across the street from the building that housed the UPI bureau. Soldiers raked the UPI office with return fire that shattered the windows and ripped into the wall above the heads of journalists huddled on the floor dictating dispatches by phone amid the shards of glass.
How the Latin American editing and translation operation became known as Chester is a mystery. One theory is that the transmission of news to South America once passed through a relay point in Chester, Pennsylvania, or possibly Chester, South Carolina. Another is that a telegraph operator handling traffic from New York to South America in the early days was named Chester, and his name became forever linked to the material he transmitted.
The Chester desk of editor-translators has its own colorful--and mobile--history. It functioned in Buenos Aires for a number of years, but the temporary shutdown of operations in 1944 under Argentine strongman Juan Peron convinced the company that it needed a more secure location. New York became Chester's home until UPI moved its headquarters to Washington in 1984.
As the agency staggered through two bankruptcies, the Chester desk moved again--first to Mexico City, then Caracas, Miami, Washington and back to Mexico City. Many talented Latin American journalists worked on the desk, blending the accents of Argentina, Chile, Peru, Cuba and other countries.
Before satellites and computers, the Chester wire was transmitted by radioteletype on a signal received in newspaper offices and radio and TV stations. In addition to news, it carried messages to UPI bureaus and stringers.
Carelessly worded messages could cause problems with clients--and sometimes governments--monitoring the wire. In the 1950s, the Chester desk in New York was run by a mild-mannered non-Hispanic, Gesford Fine, assisted by a Chilean named Jorge Bravo.
The lore is that a rival service carried a false report of a coup in Ecuador, prompting Fine to message the Quito stringer: "Understand your government overthrown. Fine."
There was no response from the Quito stringer, so a short time later Bravo sent a similar message in Spanish, signed "Bravo."
The Ecuadorean stringer, meanwhile, was trying to talk his way out of a jam as the government--still firmly in power--wanted to know why the American wire service was sending congratulations for its ouster.