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Alfonso Chardy, revered Miami Herald reporter who broke news from D.C. to the Mideast, dies

Alfonso Chardy, reporter and editor of the Miami Herald, died in Miami on April 9, 2024. His colleagues highlight his tenacity in pursuing the story, his professionalism and his role in achieving a scoop in the Iran Contras scandal, which earned the Miami Herald a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.
Nuri Vallbona
Miami Herald
Alfonso Chardy, reporter and editor of the Miami Herald, died in Miami on April 9. His colleagues highlight his tenacity in pursuing the story, his professionalism and his role in achieving a scoop in the Iran Contras scandal, which earned the Miami Herald a Pulitzer Prize in 1987.

Alfonso Chardy, a retired Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald reporter whose dogged pursuit of difficult stories in an illustrious four-decade career ranged widely from national political scandal in Washington to conflicts and disasters in the Middle East, the Caribbean and Latin America, helping the newspaper win several Pulitzer Prizes, has died at 72.

Chardy died April 9 at Mercy Hospital of a heart attack, his wife, lawyer and journalist Siobhan Morrissey, said.

The Mexican-born Chardy, who spoke and wrote in Spanish, English and French, awed his colleagues — and often the subjects of his stories — with his meticulous attention to fact and detail, voluminous note-taking and record-keeping, and a deep well of sources that spanned the world.

But he was known also for an ever-ready smile, an unflappable temperament and unassuming demeanor, an ego-less willingness to pitch in to help other reporters on stories large and small, and a quirky sense of humor that lightened the stress of many a deadline.

Often, amid the scramble of a breaking story or a crushing deadline, a cool, smiling Chardy would shrug and utter the mantra that came to define him to his Herald colleagues. Relax, he would say: “It’s only news.”

But the humor concealed a relentless dedication that could mean long hours grinding away at stories and challenging sources and story subjects to get at the truth, Morrissey and Herald colleagues recalled.

“Chardy was a reporting machine,” said Mark Seibel, a Washington Post editor who was Chardy’s editor at the Herald in the 1980s, when he served as the newspaper’s Washington correspondent and helped break open the Iran-Contra scandal during President Ronald Reagan’s second term. “He should be remembered as the quintessential Washington correspondent.”

Chardy’s reporting helped expose the central role played by U.S. Marine Col. Oliver North and Vice President George Bush in a secret program that sold weapons to the Iranian fundamentalist regime and illegally laundered proceeds to support the anti-Sandinista Contra rebels in Nicaragua. His stories were key in winning a Miami Herald reporting team the Pulitzer Prize for national news coverage in 1987.

“In June 1985, Al was the first reporter to draw the connection between Oliver North and the private aid the Contras received,” Morrissey said. “Al had developed an extensive list of sources, including two who met him for breakfast one Saturday and confirmed the Vice President’s office had been coordinating the resupply effort in conjunction with Oliver North.

“North tried unsuccessfully to stop the publication of the article. He threatened that Al would never be allowed to visit Contra bases or travel with their units.”

The pressure at times was so intense that Chardy felt he was being watched in his Washington apartment, and that was one of the reasons he kept his Mexican citizenship as a shield until after he retired in 2017, Morrissey said. He was also fearful that becoming an American citizen could make him a target for foreign governments irked by his reporting abroad.

Although Chardy wrote most of the Iran-Contra stories that earned the Pulitzer for the Herald, he always said it was “a team effort,” Morrissey recalled. In subsequent years at the newspaper, he collaborated on news coverage that contributed to three more Pulitzers for the newspaper.

Chardy, who had launched his career at the Mexico City News, the Associated Press and United Press International before joining the Herald, went on to become the newspaper’s Middle East correspondent in 1989, based in Jerusalem. After returning to One Herald Plaza as a Miami-based correspondent, Chardy covered numerous events of international import, including earthquakes in Haiti and Mexico and the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo in Argentina who protested the disappearance of their children during the country’s years of dictatorship.

His birth name was Alfonso Chardi Nieto, but his professional byline was Alfonso Chardy because his first editor at the Mexico City News misspelled his last name, and he did not have the nerve at the time to correct it, Morrissey said.

Thanks to his Mexican passport, Chardy was able to visit Cuba for stories when U.S. journalists were routinely blocked. But his reporting from Cuba eventually got under the regime’s skin. One day, on Chardy’s arrival at the airport in Havana, an official recognized him, placing his fingers over his eyes to indicate that the journalist’s bushy eyebrows gave him away. He put Chardy on the next plane back to Miami.

From left to right, Miami Herald reporter Al Chardy, UPI reporter Nick Madigan, Herald photographer Michel du Cille and New York Times reporter Joseph Treaster. The location: A bar in Havana in 1984. Chardy helped the Herald win several Pulitzer Prizes. du Cille won three Pulitzer Prizes. Courtesy Nick Madigan
Nick Madigan
From left to right, Miami Herald reporter Al Chardy, UPI reporter Nick Madigan, Herald photographer Michel du Cille and New York Times reporter Joseph Treaster. The location: A bar in Havana in 1984. Chardy helped the Herald win several Pulitzer Prizes. du Cille won three Pulitzer Prizes. Courtesy Nick Madigan

“Alfonso was the gold standard for a journalist,” said retired Herald reporter Juan Tamayo, who preceded Chardy as the Herald’s correspondent in Jerusalem. “He knew everybody, had their phone numbers and most importantly their trust, listened to what they had to say, had an amazing memory and then was able to put together the information he had gathered into one cogent story.”

When terrorists struck the World Trade Center and other U.S. targets in 2001, Chardy again tapped his sources to confirm the attackers’ identities. He quickly also ran down that many of them had lived and trained for the attacks in South Florida, recalled Curtis Morgan, a Herald senior editor who as a reporter at the time sat next to Chardy.

“Chardy mentioned knowing some intelligence contact in some foreign city,” Morgan said in a note to Herald colleagues. “Not long after, he casually informed me that he had confirmed that Mohamed Atta was one of the terrorists. As the hours and days rolled on, he also nailed down the names and travels and addresses of a bunch of the others as well — essential info that put us way ahead of the pack on reporting.”

After the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which claimed some 300,000 lives, Chardy set out to confirm first-hand whether such a high toll was possible in response to an editor’s skeptical questions, said Jacqueline Charles, the Herald’s longtime Haiti and Caribbean correspondent.

“I got a call from someone asking me who is this strange Miami Herald guy trolling the parking lot of the government’s construction company measuring and counting the trucks and asking all of these strange questions,” Charles wrote in a note to colleagues. “See, in order to figure out if indeed there were 300K plus dead, Chardy didn’t ask for the log books. Instead he investigated, by determining how many corpses each truck can hold and how many trips each truck made over how many hours to the mass burial sites. This is Chardy.”

‘Chardy’s Angels’ in El Herald

Chardy came to the new El Herald, the Spanish-language sister publication to the Miami Herald, in the early 1980s, after having been in charge of covering the 1980 Mariel exodus from Cuba for the Associated Press.

Chardy played a key role in establishing El Herald, later re-named el Nuevo Herald, as an important source of news for Spanish speakers, said Roberto Fabricio, the newspaper’s former editor, who hired him as a reporter and soon promoted Chardy to local news editor.

He led a team of young female reporters who became known, jokingly, as “Chardy’s Angels” and would go on to distinguished careers themselves. Among them were Fabiola Santiago, today a Miami Herald columnist, and journalists Liz Balmaseda, Nery Ynclán and Lourdes Meluzá.

But Chardy yearned to return to reporting, Fabricio said.

“He was a reporter at heart. After a big earthquake in Mexico City, he insisted on going and was the first Herald person on the ground,” Fabricio recalled. “He eventually was able to find his family and stayed with them. He filed stories while large aftershocks were still knocking down buildings.”

Chardy, who typed with two index fingers and when he got tired only used one, sometimes produced two or three stories a day, recalled Miami Herald editor Jay Ducassi, who worked under Chardy’s supervision when he joined the Herald in Spanish as a reporter in 1981.

“You could ask him for a difficult story and have it ready in two hours,” said Ducassi, who years later became Chardy’s editor.

A wealth of journalistic sources

An anecdote from 1991 illustrates Chardy’s keen ability to cultivate sources. Rumors began to circulate that Nelson Mandela was planning a trip to Cuba to thank Fidel Castro for his support during his imprisonment in South Africa, said Ducassi, who asked Chardy to verify it.

“Let me check with my sources at the African National Congress in Johannesburg,” Chardy told him, and Ducassi thought he was joking. He wasn’t. Chardy had a long list of ANC sources from his days in Washington.

Shortly afterward he had confirmation and a front-page story on Mandela’s planned trip to Cuba, which took place on July 25, 1991.

Herald photojournalist José Iglesias, who shared numerous assignments with Chardy, including covering the 2010 Haiti earthquake, noted his patient, determined equanimity in difficult moments.

“He was very methodical in his work, checking details three times, and asking the same question to several sources,” said Iglesias, who was also with Chardy in Cartagena, Colombia, when another scandal broke during the Summit of the Americas in 2012.

President Obama’s bodyguards had hired prostitutes, and Chardy and Iglesias went to investigate at a club where sex professionals worked.

“Chardy didn’t leave until he was able to interview at least three,” Iglesias recalled.

In later years, as the Herald closed its bureaus and cut back on foreign reporting, Chardy was reassigned to a local beat, transportation — which he took to with characteristic relish.

Chardy had studied engineering in Mexico, opted instead for journalism, but retained a lifelong interest in technology and science. He was an early adopter of devices like the Palm Pilot, and at times had three of them wired together at his desk to record interviews and download records and data.

Chardy dove into the details of highways and transportation projects with the same thoroughness he had brought to international affairs, and he was pleasantly if wryly surprised by the strong response from readers.

“They care much more about traffic than about Oliver North!” he exclaimed to a colleague.

Chardy’s curiosity ranged well beyond daily journalism to basic philosophical questions like “why are we here,” Morrissey said. And he loved cats, she added.

One of his last stories before retiring from the Herald was the case of a Colombian immigrant arrested in Miami when he was dropping his daughter off at school, for violating a deportation order. The event shocked the community and sparked protests in front of the Krome Detention Center in November 2016.

After so many hard-news stories, he did not lose sight of the human side of the story. To the end, colleagues said, Al Chardy deployed the best gift a journalist could have — the ability to put himself in other peoples’ shoes.

“Chardy was always worldly in the most humble way,” wrote Herald photographer Carl Juste to colleagues. “Part nutty professor, curious investigator, and a kind heart — a combination that is rare in journalism.”

This story was originally published in the Miami Herald, a WLRN news partner.

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