El Tigre And His Mexico

Emilio Azcarraga Milmo, the most powerful businessman Mexico has ever seen, was very particular about gafetes. These ID cards, without which no employee was ever admitted into the facilities at Televisa, Azcarraga's flagship company, were to be worn not only as identification but also as a symbol of pride. Televisa, after all, was the greatest media company in the Spanish-speaking world. When in Televicentro, his head office in Mexico City, or at his San Angel Studios, Azcarraga was careful to wear his own gafete.

On one occasion, Azcarraga entered an elevator at Televicentro and joined several of his lowly, yellow-jacketed employees. One of the men's gafetes was not clipped to his breast pocket, but dangled from his belt. "Is this why I pay you so much?" Azcarraga demanded, "so you can hang your gafete from your balls?" There was a terrible silence; El Tigre--Azcarraga's lifelong nickname--had roared. The employee, half scared to death, leveled his hand to his throat and squeaked: "No, sir. Right now my balls are up here!" Azcarraga let out a tremendous laugh, and as the elevator reached his floor, snapped off his Rolex and handed it to the worker. "You deserve it, you bastard," he said, and departed through the opening doors.

That was El Tigre; feared and loved, imperious and jovial, impulsively generous, the man with a tiger's stripe of white hair brushed back from his forehead. Businessmen credited the nickname to Azcarraga's tendency to pounce on a coveted asset, his decision-making seeming to rely more upon animal instinct than research. In fact, Azcarraga was baptized El Tigre in the late 1960s, as a private joke by a childhood friend whose suit Azcarraga had accidentally ripped after a night of drunken revelry. In 1972, he assumed control of the company that his father, Emilio Azcarraga Vidaurreta, had founded in 1930. By the early 1990s, he was the wealthiest man in Latin America, with a fortune estimated at $5 billion. At various times, his empire included four national TV networks, radio, the world's largest publisher of Spanish-language magazines, films, videos and top Mexican football teams America and Necaxa. But to the end, his life story was one of contradictions. Though a proud Mexican, Azcarraga was born in the United States--and chose to die there. As the wayward son of a wealthy businessman, he was expected to founder as an underachiever; but he confounded all predictions by becoming much richer and more powerful than his father. The astonishing expansion of his company was based on a refined nose for business--and also on favors he received from the political establishment.

Along the way, Azcarraga shaped much of modern Mexican society. According to the National Consumer Institute, an average child in Mexico spends some 1,500 hours per year staring at a TV screen, compared with less than 1,000 hours in school. Since the 1950s, when the first blond actresses appeared on TV and when advertisers first showed their preference for fair-skinned models to present their products, hair-dye sales and bottle blondes have multiplied.

Fewer and fewer Mexican girls are named after the saint on whose day they are born; more and more are christened Marimar or Maria Mercedes--the names of popular heroines of telenovelas, the soap operas that are Televisa's staple. Mexico has become a country of TV addicts; from one end of society to the other, Mexicans are mesmerized by a small screen--which for more than two decades was practically monopolized by Televisa programming. Even the ruling party--the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)--has had to depend upon Televisa to connect effectively with potential voters. "Televisa owns the free time of the Mexicans," the writer Carlos Monsivais has said.

Just as effectively, Televisa has been a cornerstone of Mexico's political stability. With its great reach and varied resources, Televisa practically defined what was news in Mexico and what wasn't. The leading nightly newscast, "24 Horas," determined what Mexicans should know. And also what they should not know--matters like the number of victims of the 1985 earthquake in Mexico City, the protests of the mothers of the disappeared, criticism of whatever economic model was current and political positions distinct from those of the PRI.

Until recently, Televisa comprehensively covered the ruling party in election years--and ignored both opposition candidates and cries of electoral fraud. The broadcaster's credibility gradually eroded as a result, and never more quickly than during the state elections in Chihuahua in 1986, when the right-of-center Partido Accion Nacional (PAN) and civil groups protested Televisa's manipulation of the news. The public heard of these rallies only in the written press; on television, they never existed. Demonstrations by unions, peasants and civic organizations were either ignored by Televisa or mentioned merely for the inconvenience they caused to traffic.

Born in San Antonio, Texas, on Sept. 6, 1930, and educated at Culver Military Academy in Indiana, Emilio Azcarraga always needed to be in control. In his early 20s, within months of his marriage, Azcarraga watched his wife fall ill and die. From then on, he tended to seek friendships and romances that could be founded and directed on terms that he dictated. Most of his close friends were also employees. Those friends who did not work for Azcarraga often entered business ventures with him in which Emilio held the purse strings. Affected by a sentimentality at least partly rooted in his wife's death, his career became a quest for respect and power. For 20 years, his arch-adversary in this battle was his own father; despairing of Emilio's playboy ways and capricious conduct, Azcarraga Vidaurreta nicknamed his son the "Idiot Prince." And for a further 20 or so years, it seems, the memory of his father continued to provide Azcarraga with a personal impulse for growing his company into an ever-larger media empire.

Dramas of power and control shaped Azcarraga's entire life: marriages, affairs, divorces and separations. He insisted on exclusive allegiance from performers. He waged a mighty, and ultimately unsuccessful, battle with the Federal Communications Commission to retain Televisa's TV stations in the United States. From 1993 until his death in 1997, he struggled with the debt incurred through a $1.5 billion buyout of his sister Laura, who had left the company after it became clear that her son was no longer first in line to succeed as Televisa president. Toward the end of his life, he got into a battle of egos with other media moguls--including Rupert Murdoch and Brazil's Roberto Irineu Marinho--over the founding (and leadership) of a $1 billion satellite-TV service for Latin America. And as his health finally collapsed, he entered into his most desperate fight of all: a struggle to see that control of his company would be handed over to his son, Emilio Azcarraga Jean.

Yet though Azcarraga was a man obsessed with control, he was frequently unable to keep his own moods and impulses in check. If you displeased him, you could expect to find yourself facing the full force of El Tigre's roar and claw. He was given to lengthy, humiliating, obscenity-filled lectures. But Azcarraga had a liking for those who were not easily intimidated. His tough talk was both his method of ensuring commands were obeyed and a laddish way of generating loyalty. Call it a macho thing. When the boss called you pendejo ("jerk"), cabron ("bastard") or maricon ("faggot"), it meant that you were one of the boys--he liked you and trusted you. If he didn't like you, he addressed you as "Mr."

And he didn't reserve his awesome rebukes only for men. Lucia Mendez, a telenovela star who was for many years his most pampered creation, came in for a severe scolding when she told him she was having a baby. Far from congratulating her, El Tigre hit the roof. Mendez had committed the cardinal sin of actresses: she had gotten pregnant midway through a novela. "Why didn't you plan it? How are we going to manage if you get very fat? You're on the air! You're so irresponsible!" and on and on. Mendez was reduced to tears and cried for hours. The next day, Azcarraga phoned her, profusely apologetic: "Look, Lucia. Yesterday I really got angry; I was out of line. I want to ask for your forgiveness and tell you that you're right: you've been working for many years, you're at the perfect age to have children..." It was vintage Azcarraga.

All his life, El Tigre courted friendship with the famous and sophisticated. He was close to Octavio Paz, Mexico's greatest man of letters. Other pals included the Austrian conductor Herbert von Karajan, the English painter David Hockney, the American banker and philanthropist David Rockefeller and King Juan Carlos of Spain. Yet, though he collected top-level contacts in the way he felt an aristocrat should, his company's principal contribution to Mexican culture was the telenovela, a kind of drama that has commonly (though too dismissively) been derided as an opiate for the poor. He may have promoted opera and a Mozart concert at the Vatican, but Televisa's typical musical creations were of a more basic appeal.

Azcarraga rigidly steered his firm as a provider of entertainment for the masses. Publicly, he believed his TV channels served the "humble classes" by giving them free entertainment. Privately, he made secret donations to several dozen charities, from homes for street children to schools in the impoverished state of Chiapas. Yet in many ways Azcarraga failed to serve Mexico's mestizos: Televisa's entertainment programming marginalized--and continues to marginalize--the faces of his country's darker-skinned majority. He vetoed any accurate representation of the lifestyles of the middle and lower classes, preferring to offer a mix of fairy tale and pantomime. Azcarraga thought he was serving the poor by letting them in free to his variety shows, but over three decades this deferential public found itself cheering an array of performers who looked ever whiter and blonder and less and less like themselves.

He fascinated all whom he met. In business, he used his undeniable charm to conquer an executive he wanted to hire or to clinch a deal. In private, he used it as a complement to his good looks and physical magnetism to seduce both women and, in a platonic sense, many men. Many foreign businessmen and diplomats fell under his spell, among them TV entrepreneur Jerry Perenchio (owner of U.S. Hispanic network Univision) and Ronald Reagan's ambassador to Mexico, John Gavin. Sometimes the seduction was entirely verbal. Azcarraga liked to argue with feisty women, from screen legend Maria Felix to the U.S. talk-show host Cristina Saralegui, as much for the pleasure of charming them as for the exchange of ideas. Sometimes the seduction was not even necessary. The actress turned Mexican senator Irma (La Tigresa) Serrano is said, with her unique flamboyance, to have sent him a blank check, and a note attached: "Fill in the amount that you like, just so I can spend a single night with you!!"

Charm was part of Azcarraga's theatricality, and the act became more obvious in later years. If he suspected trouble, he might threaten in jest: "If the answer is no, you'll see why they call me El Tigre!" He had plastic surgery and dyed most of his graying hair black, to accentuate his white stripe. He dressed impeccably and used the finest Chanel. Well into his 60s, he continued to have a seductive effect upon the people he met. "Emilio Azcarraga is the role model for groomed perfection," says the U.S. TV executive Nely Galan, who worked with him in 1994. "He lives his life like performance art."

The seduction worked; Azcarraga had a tremendous ability to foster loyalty. He would inspire those closest to him with rhetorical private lectures in which his enthusiasm for the business of television was utterly infectious. "Look, Gaston," he once told Gaston Melo, his personal assistant in the 1990s, "if you're going to work for me, I want you to understand what communication is all about. What travels on land, the ships on the sea--all this is what the politicians see as communications." He then paused for effect. "I see the air, Gaston. That is my business."

Azcarraga was a visible presence to those of lower rank. Taking a leaf from his father's book, he would visit the sound stages of San Angel each month, checking up on the latest novela and boosting morale. His entrance seemed to make the ground tremble. Conversations abruptly stopped. But soon, with a crowd gathering round him, the boss was asking people about their families, congratulating actresses upon their weddings and joshing with the older hands. Almost all were proud to have El Tigre as their patron.

His many theatrical tendencies made Azcarraga more enigmatic: when did the facades end and the beliefs begin? Azcarraga was a declared and vigorous supporter of the PRI, which has governed Mexico since the 1920s, yet he publicly rejected the party after the economic crisis of 1994-95. He zealously preached the duty of television to reflect and respect the values of the Mexican family. But the example he himself set could scarcely have been worse. His life as a family man was one of incorrigible deceit--he cheated not only on his wives, but on his mistresses, too. And until a few years before he died, he neglected his children.

Even more complex was Azcarraga's patriotism. Praise for Mexico and a concern for the well-being of its people were the frequent subjects of speeches and private conversations. Nonetheless, some charge that Azcarraga's patriotic fervor was designed for public consumption and political gain, calculated to counter criticism of Televisa's media monopoly or its pro-Americanism. When Azcarraga made a famous speech in 1993 about Televisa's mission to entertain, referring to "the screwed-up humble classes" and the obligation of TV to "extract them from their sad reality," many observers interpreted the words as proof of a patronizing arrogance and exploitation of the poor. Rightly or wrongly--for some argue that Azcarraga was misinterpreted--they came to question whether those were the words of a patriot.

In his final years, as his health failed, Azcarraga's contradictions multiplied. He obeyed his whims more frequently, but he also exhibited a newfound sense of responsibility--personally, professionally and politically--as he tried to become a father to his children, started to streamline his bloated media empire and began to be conciliatory toward opposition parties. Romantically, he became hopelessly divided between Adriana Abascal, the beauty queen who was 40 years his junior, a revolving catalog of novela starlets and Paula Cussi, his remarkably tolerant companion of more than 20 years and wife No. 4. Azcarraga seemed to pride himself on his ability to keep up two or three relationships at one time, but his juggling act turned into a women's wrestling match. Still, when Cussi finally threw in the towel and left him, he persuaded her against a divorce and continued to spend time with her as a friend.

Always, Azcarraga knew the importance of good relations with the Mexican political hierarchy. For many years, the Mexican state sought to exercise a cultural hegemony and political control through the mass media--via three public TV channels and a press that for decades simply parroted the government's line. On at least three occasions, the state threatened to nationalize Televisa. Each time, Azcarraga prevailed. From Los Pinos--Mexico's White House--on down, he had right of entry. From the 1970s, the presidential ear was always open to Azcarraga's opinions, petitions and complaints. In 1989, for example, Yolanda Vargas Dulche, one of Azcarraga's top scriptwriters, went to him with a problem. Intending to make good on his anti-corruption campaign promises, President Carlos Salinas had jailed several businessmen on charges of tax evasion. One was Vargas's husband, the hotelier Guillermo de la Parra. As the firm was registered in the name of the family, an order went out for the arrest of Vargas, too. Azcarraga called Vargas, now in hiding with a relative, and told her, "Television is at your command." He visited Salinas to plead the family's case. And he generated public sympathy by having Vargas interviewed for television; she asserted her family's innocence and spoke of how her husband had built free housing for 36 families at a hacienda they owned in Durango. Two months later de la Parra was freed.

Azcarraga wasn't often denied. In the early 1990s he told Communications Secretary Andres Caso Lombardo to go to hell for refusing to grant the broadcast licenses with which Azcarraga hoped to create a fourth national TV network for Televisa. Caso was loath to give the conglomerate yet greater power. Irritated, Azcarraga argued that such measures were necessary to help unite the Mexican population. He took his request to President Salinas and obtained the dozens of licenses that he was after. Earlier, during the Miguel de la Madrid administration, rival businessman Joaquin Vargas had to wait nearly five years in the 1980s to operate a pay-TV concession in Mexico City after Azcarraga took out an injunction to delay its start-up. Vargas's new system, Multivision, threatened to compete directly with Azcarraga's own subsidiary, Cablevision.

In the political jungle, Azcarraga moved with ease to preserve his monopoly. He understood the system and knew exactly which buttons to press. When Azcarraga's agenda differed from that of the government, he made himself heard. In September 1982, when President Jose Lopez Portillo nationalized the banking sector, Azcarraga flew into a rage and confronted the president, fearing that the TV industry would be next. "He didn't have very firm political convictions, because his capitalist sensibility showed through, during the nationalization of the banks," Lopez Portillo recalls today. "That's when I knew the real Emilio Azcarraga."

Yet such sharp exchanges were the exception in what was chiefly a warm and mutually beneficial relationship between Televisa and the government. Perhaps the moment that most clearly illustrates this symbiosis was a private dinner in February 1993, attended by President Salinas, the heads of the PRI and the cream of Mexico's business elite. During the banquet, a party leader suggested that each of the guests cough up $25 million for the forthcoming presidential campaign. Azcarraga offered to triple that amount. As a faithful ally of presidents (if more faithful to some than to others), Azcarraga never hid his willingness to support the ruling party. Each time an election neared, Azcarraga made ad hoc declarations in support of the PRI: "We are for the PRI." "Our boss is the president of the republic." "We are part of the system." That he certainly was; for good or ill.

From the book "Emilio Azcarraga y Su Imperio Televisa" (Emilio Azcarraga and His Televisa Empire) by Claudia Fernandez and Andrew Paxman. (©) 2000 by Claudia Fernandez and Andrew Paxman.