issue 185 - July 1988
The power of propaganda
Nicaragua's Sandinistas are a symbol of hope to some. But in
Guatemala they are more likely to be a bugbear for wayward children.
Chris Brazier reflects on the war the US has already won.
DANIEL Ortega is a devil,' said the woman in the fast- food joint. Her husband nodded solemn agreement.
'What do you mean?' I asked cautiously.
'He's a liar and a tyrant and he can't be trusted an inch.'
'So you don't believe the Sandinistas want peace?'
'Peace? How can they talk about peace when they have so many Soviet bases there? Why do they have such a big army? I believe these peace talks are just a diversion and that one day they will march their army into Salvador. And, when Salvador falls to the Communists, Guatemala will be next.'
This conversation took place early this year in one of the hundreds of North-Americanized burger bars that litter the streets of Guatemala City. My companion's views were by no means untypical of Guatemala's ladino or Hispanicized minority (the Indian majority being a world apart in terms of wealth, culture and political reflexes).
These are ordinary middle-class people who live comfortably by local standards (though still poorly by our own) and who simply wish to live undisturbed by political earthquakes - something most of them managed to do even during Guatemala's most tortured and repressive years in the early 1980s.
Meeting these people provides an object lesson in the power of propaganda. Since I had just come from Nicaragua I was in an unusually well-qualified position to explain as tactfully as possible that their image of it bore no relation to reality.
Even leaving aside the question of Soviet bases - which even the Reagan administration admits do not exist - the idea of Nicaragua as an expansionist dragon, just itching to burst through its borders on the way to Texas could hardly be farther off beam. It is, after all, a tiny underpopulated country of just three million people which has trouble enough holding off the Contras and their US advisers without inviting any other fights.
The Nicaragua I had just left had been beleaguered in every way: bedevilled by power cuts, water and oil shortages, raging inflation and, to cap it all, a drought at the end of 1987 that cut harvests by as much as 30 per cent. You don't have to believe in a pure idealism at the heart of the Nicaraguan people to be convinced that their yearning for peace is genuine. On the contrary you can see that yearning in every darkened street, every dry tap, every queue for beans and every immobile bus. The Contra war has ground the country down, strangled its jubilation at its post-Somoza freedom and replaced it with a grim determination to endure.
But don't blame the Guatemalans for their distorted view. After all, ever since the Sandinista Revolution in 1979, they have been fed the official line that Nicaragua is a staging post on the march towards global Communist domination. The irony is that Guatemala's current Government - led by Vinicio Cerezo and a distinct improvement on the repressive monsters that preceded it - is now trying to persuade people that the Sandinistas can be trusted to make the Esquipulas peace process work. But eight years of propaganda creates its own fund of common sense. It stands to reason, doesn't it? If Ortega and the rest were the quintessence of evil yesterday, how do you expect us to believe they are reasonable human beings today?
As I talked to Guatemalans about Nicaragua, I sometimes had the strange feeling that I was arguing with Ronald Reagan, as though he were, like them, a sad victim of delusive propaganda rather than its arch-progenitor. This may well be just sentimental attachment to my own (and most Britons') prejudice about Reagan - that he is an empty-headed marionette activated by more sinister puppeteers.
But it gives a sense of how propaganda gets out of control, of how it takes over the people who use it. And in the unlikely event that President Reagan ever consults me, I shall mention one striking memory - of a line of fresh-faced and rather bemused-looking Nicaraguan soldiers guarding the US Embassy in Managua during a demonstration by North Americans against Contra aid. No wonder they looked bemused. Here they were standing sentinel over the representatives of the country which has waged covert and not-so-secret war against them for eight years. Is that totalitarian, or is it a commitment to democracy above and beyond the call of duty? And would the US have done the same for North Vietnam?
Chris Brazier is an NI co-editor who recently returned from three months in Central America.