Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez draws criticism as television show executive


BOGOTA, Colombia -- Nobel Prize-winning novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez's debut as a television executive is helping propel his nightly news program into one of Colombia's most popular, but it's also generating criticism that he is not spending enough time doing what he does best -- writing.

Since Mr. Garcia Marquez and four friends launched their nightly news program "QAP" on Jan. 2, the show has climbed to the top rating at its 9:30 p.m. time slot. The writer, who does not appear on camera, is spending most evenings behind the sets proposing stories, suggesting camera angles and offering all kinds of advice to the program's two anchors.

"He's like a kid in a candy store," said Maria Elvira Samper, one of the show's two producers and a fellow stockholder. "I don't remember seeing him so enthusiastic about something in a long time."

It's true, the novelist agrees. "I'm happy to have returned to Colombia," said Mr. Garcia Marquez, who keeps homes in Cartagena, Colombia; Mexico City and Havana, but plans to spend most of his time here. "I'm doing all the things I've long wanted to do."

The news show, whose name is taken from ham radio lingo meaning "stand by," has come up with a string of scoops thanks to Mr. Garcia Marquez's world contacts, its producers say. "Gabo," as the writer is known to his friends and -- by now -- most Colombians, concedes that he often helps open doors to his show's reporters.

Thanks to his telephone calls, "QAP" has already gotten exclusive interviews with Spanish President Felipe Gonzalez, Venezuelan President Carlos Andres Perez, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori and salsa star Juan Luis Guerra. Mikhail S. Gorbachev and Henry A. Kissinger are next in line, producers say.

Mr. Garcia Marquez, a stocky man who sports silk kerchiefs on open-neck shirts and black leather boots, concedes he is thrilled by his news program. He scribbles ideas for the program every morning after he wakes up at 5 a.m., and calls the two executive producers several times a day to make suggestions.

Most often, he proposes original news angles to daily stories, "QAP" producers say.

During a recent scandal involving a drug trafficker who had bribed jurors of a beauty contest into picking his young wife as the queen -- beauty pageants are a serious matter in Colombia -- Mr. Garcia Marquez suggested not focusing the story on the bribery angle, as virtually all Colombian news media were doing.

Rather, he suggested centering it on the love story behind the crime, which he found much more interesting. The producers took Gabo's advice. The "QAP" story on the love-sick husband and his not-so-beautiful wife-turned-beauty-queen became Colombia's talk of the town for days.

However, some critics, including former government minister Carlos Lemos Simmonds, who is a political commentator on a competing news show, say Mr. Garcia Marquez should stay away from the television studios.

"He is doing a major disservice to literature," Mr. Lemos Simmonds said. "He is one of the world's greatest writers, and he is spending his time advising presidents, producing movies and doing television shows. People wish he would spend more time writing."

Mr. Garcia Marquez rejects such criticism with a hand wave. Asked if he has become tired of writing, he said he still enjoys it better than any other of his various activities.

"Journalism is what helps me keep my feet on the ground, so that I can later fly away in literature," he said in an interview. "It's the raw material with which I work."

He said he still writes every morning, until about 2 p.m. After waking up at 5 a.m., he reads the newspapers and faxes he receives from various capitals, takes a shower and begins to write at about 9 a.m. on his desk-top computer.

"I always dress up to write," he said. "I can't work in pajamas, or in slippers. I could never understand how other writers manage to work like that."

He is currently completing a book of short stories about Latin American exiles in Europe, which is scheduled to be released in July at the Seville, Spain, opening ceremonies for the 500th anniversary of Columbus' first voyage to the Americas.

In the afternoons, the writer shows up at about 5 at the "QAP" newsroom, and spends an average of three hours there. He usually goes to bed at 11 and reads until midnight.

Mr. Garcia Marquez, a longtime friend of Cuban President Fidel Castro, says he doesn't have anything new to say about Cuba, other than to reiterate his call on Washington to lift its trade embargo on the island as a way to affect what he agrees are "necessary" democratic changes there.

In an unusual move, he released a public statement in January pleading for the lives of three Miami exiles who had been sentenced to death in Cuba for infiltrating the country in hopes of sparking a rebellion. It was the first time that Mr. Garcia Marquez, who in the past has privately lobbied with Mr. Castro for the release of political prisoners, went public with his plea.

Sources close to the writer say that he remains a loyal friend to Mr. Castro but that he is a firm opponent of the death penalty. Mr. Garcia Marquez made his statement public out of a personal hunch that Mr. Castro would execute the three men, they say. In the end, two of the infiltrators were pardoned, and the third -- Eduardo Diaz Betancourt -- was executed Jan. 20.

Mr. Garcia Marquez's continued support for the Castro revolution is costing him some popularity at home in Colombia, however, in part because Cuba is suspected of having supplied weapons to Colombian guerrillas in the past.

When Colombia's star toreador Cesar Rincon dedicated a bull to the writer at Bogota's Plaza de Toros in late December, jeers were heard from some corners of the stadium. There was speculation later that the isolated boos had come from peopleunhappy about the writer's much-publicized ties to Mr. Castro.

"I think Gabo is conscious that his friendship with Castro is not playing very well at home," said Enrique Santos Calderon, a good friend of the writer and fellow "QAP" stockholder. "At the same time, he doesn't want to be seen as abandoning his friends in times of need."

At his news show, the writer has not tried to impose pro-Castro views on reporters, the producers say.

"He has not meddled at all in that," said Maria Isabel Rueda, who shares the executive producer job with Ms. Samper. When Mr. Diaz Betancourt was executed, "We put interviews with Miami exiles on the air saying all kinds of bad things about Castro, and he didn't say a thing."

And if he does?

"He won't," responded Ms. Samper. "Gabo knows perfectly well what limits of his role are, and what our job is as producers. The Cuban issue hasn't even come up in our conversations."

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