Sunday, October 13, 2019

Vargas Llosa says democracy is the best defense against propaganda and nationalism

His latest historical novel tells of CIA misinformation campaign

Mario Vargas Llosa, a Nobel laureate in literature, has just published a historical novel, Tough Times ("Tiempos recios"), whose plot is based on the 1954 overthrow of the democratically elected government in Guatemala that was engineered by the CIA.  

For the novelist, that conspiracy has many echoes today in the status of news media organizations and the abundance of information and disinformation available to the general public.  

During a publicity tour in Spain, Vargas Llosa gave an interview to El Pais, arguably the country's most prestigious daily. He said that the 1954 coup in Guatemala was masterminded for the CIA by a public relations expert named Edward L. Bernays, whose nickname was "the clever puppetmaster". Bernays's philosophy of communication could be boiled down to a phrase: propaganda will prevail over the truth.

In fact, the media campaign described in the novel was based on what really happened. A propaganda campaign persuaded the elite of Boston "that the interests of the United Fruit Company are the same as the United States, and that the recently inaugurated democracy of Guatemala puts them in jeopardy because of their dependence on the Kremlin". In fact, Soviet influence was exaggerated or non-existent; the government's land policies threatened United Fruit's business interests.

Versión en español
Guatemala was just one of the theaters of the Cold War of 1945-1991, when the United States and  the Soviet Union fought ideological and proxy wars all over the world--Korea, Vietnam, Cuba, Chile, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America--to gain spheres of influence. And in the United States, the mere whiff of Soviet influence justified the use of covert tactics to support dictators who said they were anti-communist. The fascist leader Francisco Franco of Spain was one such ally. (Jon Lee Anderson's biography Che Guevara: A Revolutionary Life details many of the covert CIA operations in Latin America aimed at countering the Soviets.)

Today, nationalist politicians promote nativist, anti-immigrant narratives in the media.

Vargas Llosa's interviewer, Jesus Ceberio, former publisher of El Pais, commented that the propaganda wars waged at that time in the media are very much like those of today.

Vargas Llosa responded: “It's very difficult to tell what's true, precisely because of this audiovisual revolution that in many ways has democratized information, because all of us can publish, but at the same time that abundance creates confusion. It's very difficult to figure out what's true and what's false. But democracy, which allows journalistic diversity, has stronger defenses against fake news than a dictatorship, where there is only one voice, which is the voice of the government."

Ceberio asked, "How can democracy coexist with systematic lies?"

Vargas Llosa: "Lies have always been there, but free societies are better equipped to fight them with diversity. There are newspapers that are more respectable than others, because they are more careful not to spread false information. In a dictatorship one is completely lost, because there is only a single voice; we are cut off from the rest of the world, although, thanks to the technological revolution, that is harder to do."

He went on: "In the end, what does this mean? Do we have a lot of problems? We have always had them. But the bigger problem that democracy had was communism, which seduced millions of young people with the idea of a paradise on this earth. This has disappeared, communism has disappeared, it no longer exists. Is it possible that someone believes that North Korea or Venezuela or Cuba are models for the Third World?"

After reading the interview and the review of the book in El Pais, I find myself in agreement with the hopeful tone of Vargas Llosa. Over the long term, the most trustworthy news organizations will survive because their search for verifiable information will triumph in the marketplace of ideas.

This is not just a vain hope but a view based on the emergence of many digital news media organizations around the world that are producing high quality journalism. Here are 20 examples of such independent media from16 countries, not all of which support freedom of expression.

It would be too scary to consider a world without them.

Publishers pivot toward users and credibility, away from advertising

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