The word “propaganda” is not as modern as it sounds. It first pops up as Church Latin in 1622, naming a mission to spread the faith in non-Catholic countries. That is consistent with its modern meaning of false or misleading material spread by governments and political activists to get and keep power. There is a lot of that these days, but we cannot say whether it has gotten better or worse over the decades, only that it seems to spread more easily now, which sounds like an ad for jam.
An acquaintance of ours liked to tell a story about this. He was a foreign correspondent based in Nicaragua 30 years ago. It was when the ruling Marxist Sandinista Party had held elections and lost. On election night, former U.S. President Jimmy Carter had gone to the ruling clique, told them he knew what it was like to lose and urged them to accept the overwhelming results; and they did, near dawn, with a red-eyed Sandinista President Daniel Ortega among them – announcing they would, however, be keeping the army.
Managua was that kind of place then, still digging out from the 1972 earthquake, and communism, languidly waiting for a new arrangement. The Soviet Union was spinning apart and the map was changing. On Aug. 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator and ex-Soviet ally, invaded neighboring Kuwait. On Jan. 16, 1991, the U.S. and its coalition partners began the most intensive bombing campaigns in history, against Iraq.
The press in Nicaragua had always been anemic. When the Sandinistas seized power in 1979, they suppressed it and launched their own newspaper, Barricada. It was earnest, pro-Soviet and took liberties with the news. Once the war against Iraq began, it and leftist paper Nuevo Diario ran front-page stories claiming the U.S. had suffered devastating losses in the air and at sea and would soon be forced to capitulate. It was some of the most blatant lying anyone had seen.
It was then that our acquaintance was summoned to Cuba. Fidel Castro, its dictator, had been in power for 32 years, and with the changes in the Middle East, and the USSR, which had long been his sponsor, he wanted to get his side of the story out as insurance.
Inside Cuba, there was no free or independent press, only Granma, the state daily, which was if anything more surreal than Barricada. But while Castro censored all Western media for internal consumption, he made an exception: He was an avid consumer himself, because he wanted to know what was going on. He followed our acquaintance’s reporting closely and offered reasonable criticisms (“Why do you say ‘embargo’ instead of ‘blockade’?”).
Our acquaintance let Castro do most of the talking, which was what Castro preferred and what, as far as we know, all dictators prefer. Castro vowed to continue his Marxist revolution without the Soviets, warned that no one should underestimate the will of the Cuban people to resist Yanqui imperialism, and talked about his plan to make fast-food burgers with farmed nutria, which are big rodents.
A few days later, our acquaintance and another reporter were walking past a restaurant in the arcade of the Hotel Habana Libre, in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood, when he heard Castro summoning him. Castro was dining alone with Ortega; staff and bodyguards were at other tables.
“Boys,” he said jovially, like a man settling a bet, “Daniel thinks the Yankees are losing in the Gulf, that Saddam has beat them. Tell him.”
They looked at Ortega’s expectant face – the face of a man who had sampled the merchandise; a man who had made the classic mistake of believing his own propaganda, which is a common affliction to this day and not just among dictators, but extremists of all stripes – and, just like killing Santa Claus, and with no little satisfaction, they told Ortega it was all lies.