Propaganda as a means to persuade people has a long history. But it really only came into its own with the spread of newspapers and radio in the 20th century. The first to exploit mass media’s ability to spread falsehood in the interests of the state was Dr Goebbels in Nazi Germany.
He should be credited (if that is the right term) with creating Fake News, although Stalin’s regime in Soviet Russia was not far behind. The scale of both their streams of falsehoods designed to sustain the state was brilliantly lampooned in Orwell’s 1984, where the Ministry of Truth’s sole task was to disseminate lies.
But the West—especially the USA— was not above using such black arts during four decades of the Cold War against the Soviet Union and communism in general. Radio Free Europe was not always scrupulous about what it broadcast to the people behind the Iron Curtain. The Cold War escalated into the Korean War in 1950. The USA fell into a conviction of its moral superiority as the clearly democratic “Leader of the Free World” against the dictatorship of communism, as evidences by Stalin’s iron rule in the Soviet Union.
In the early 1950’s, this led to the “Reds under the beds” era of McCarthyism when a paranoid USA saw Communists both at home and abroad. In what was not America’s finest hour, democratic principles were pushed aside in the hunt for real, or imagined, Communists. The greatest sensitivity was in America’s back yard: Latin America.
Early post-WW2 was also the era when large American corporations, swollen and undamaged by the war had free global reign. There was great demand for their aircraft, computers, armaments, household appliances, cola and hamburgers, as well as films, TV and music.
Ever since the Monroe Doctrine declared Latin America to be their economic fiefdom, American companies had exploited the area. This was particularly true of the supply of tropical fruit. The United Fruit Company (UFC) flourished in the early and mid-20th century. It came to control vast territories and transportation networks in Central America and the Caribbean, establishing virtual monopolies in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala.
Such “Banana Republics” were each under the control of a handful of families who owned and ran vast estates that grew the fruit. The esrarws were worked by the poorly paid majority of the population. In 1944, an uprising in Guatemala toppled a dictatorship under Jorge Ubico. Juan José Arévalo was elected president in Guatemala’s first-ever democratic election, turning it into a democracy. He created universal suffrage; establshed a minimum wage. In 1951, Arévalo was succeeded by Jacobo Árbenz, who granted property to landless peasants through land reform of the estates.
This displeased the estate owners, but more especially UFC, which was making handsome profits from the pitiful wages paid on the estates, as well as a light tax regime by paying off the right people. Due to the level of political influence UFC exercised at home, the Truman administration was soon under pressure from fake news that this land reform was just the thin end of a Communist wedge. Nobody in the US appears to have done any homework on the reality in Guatemala.
In early 1952, advised by staffers John Foster Dulles and Allen Dulles (who both had links to UFC), Truman authorised the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to plan Operation PBFortune to topple Árbenz. This was never executed. Late that year, Eisenhower was elected President on a platform of being tough on Communism around the world. With McCarthyism “witch-hunts” at their height, the stalemate in Korea unresolved and defeat for the French in Indochina imminent, paranoia was in the air. As a result, the U.S. federal government conclusions about the extent of Communist influence among Árbenz’s advisers were exaggerated into what we would now recognise as fake news.
So, in August 1953, the CIA was authorised to carry out a reconfigured Operation PBfortune as Operation PBSuccess. The CIA armed, funded, and trained a force of around 500 men and the coup was preceded by a “softebing-up” operation. This was a media campaign of disinformation that criticised and and tried to isolate Guatemala internationally.
On 18 June, the scratch force invaded Guatemala A campaign of psychological warfare was led by a Radio Free Europe-style broadcasting, using anti-Árbenz propaganda and a heavily distorted version of events. The “news” denied: that a naval blockade of both coasts was in force; that the bombing of Guatemala City had anything to do with the USA; that the invasion force was making heavy weather of reaching the capital.
When it promulgated the threat of a U.S. Marines storming ashore, the beleaguered Guatemalan Army laid down arms and refused to fight on. Árbenz resigned on 27 June and Castillo Armas was installed as President ten days later. In becoming the first of a line of US-backed dictators, Armas was the coup de grace to democracy in Guatemala. The CIA tried to justify the Guatamalan incursion by searching records for evidence that the Soviet Union had been involved in the country. They found nothing.
Such blatant interference did not pass unremarked and so further eroded Latin regard for the USA as a force for good in the Americas. The rot had started when supposedly ant-colonial USA sparked the War of 1898 against colonial Spain. After a swift victory, it proceeded to annex Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines as virtual colonies and turned Cuba into an offshore Las Vegas. Soon after, in 1903, threats towards Colombia severed Panama to set it up as a puppet state so the Panama Canal could be built. The Castro-led 1959 Cuban Revolution should be seen through the prism of a century of self-justified IS arrogance in the region.
Variants on Guatemala;s story a scattered through Latin America, always with CIA justification for intervention of combating Communism. It brought Pinochet to Chile and Ortega to Nicaragua. UFC may have gone out of business in 1970, but its legacy of covert intervention to prop up business interests continues. Regard for the niceties of democracy and the will of the people are often cited, but seldom adhered to. Papers concerning such activities were witheld until Clinton and Obama called off the dogs of war.
But the legacy of peasant populations oppressed by rich estate owners, protected by strong-arm presidents, backed by American clout lives on. So when Trump grew belligerent about great numbers of desperate Central Americans who were appearing on the southern border and railed against Mexico for permitting more caravans of migrants to cross the 2,000 miles of its territory from the Guatemalan border, neither he, nor most Americans saw any responsibility for them. But it is utterly cynical that those refugees were treated so harshly, as if the US were blameless for their plight.
These people represent just some of the many chickens hatched under all those dishonest cover stories disseminated on behalf of McKinley. Teddy Roosevelt, Truman, Eisenhower and Regan now coming home to roost.
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