How to Subvert a Democracy, Stage 3: Create Your Own News

To get the people on your side, you need to change the media narrative. A few hired hacks and a “passive sabotage program” will do the trick.

How to Subvert a Democracy, Stage 3: Create Your Own News

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Stage 3 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

David Phillips and his radio crew spent March and April in Florida writing and prerecording the initial broadcasts for Radio Liberación. 

In his memoir, Phillips recalled the objective as being “to intimidate listeners” who were Árbenz sympathizers and to “influence the mass of neutral types” — what they described as a “soap-opera audience.”

Initially, these broadcasts would need to establish credibility. Anything that the Árbenz government could point to in order to prove that the station was not inside Guatemala, for example, could foil the plot. The content would start with exaggerations of the truth, opinions that would be hard to falsify, and accusations that would be difficult to disprove: Castillo Armas was building an army; Árbenz was bad for Guatemala; Communists were taking over the government; etc. The goal was to start getting Guatemalans talking about Castillo Armas and the fight against Communism.

Only after this would they move on to what Phillips called “the big lie.”

According to E. Howard Hunt’s memoir Undercover, after several weeks of work, the Guatemalan radio operators threatened to strike due to their “forced celibacy.” So Hunt flew out their “girlfriends” (at least one of whom was actually a wife). Hunt’s descriptions of the Guatemalan crew were exaggerated and racist (Hunt’s son Saint John describes his father as a racist in his own memoir), but the ladies can be heard in many recordings of the broadcasts, including participating in a regular “Women Against Communism” segment hosted by “Silvia and Sandra.” Documents reveal that they were sisters: Sonia and Sara Orellana.

Finally, in late April, the crew flew to Nicaragua, with permission from the dictator Anastasio Somoza, to set up a radio transmitter in a shack in the jungle. The location would be a heavily guarded secret — and Nicaragua was deliberately chosen because Árbenz’s military knew that Castillo Armas was hiding across the border in Honduras and might therefore search for the radio station there.

With an established network and seeds of doubt firmly planted, the plotters were ready to start spreading their own content — what Silverman describes as the next step in a successful info-war campaign: “Get your operation up and running to get your message out.”



The Guatemalan press reported excitedly on the new station that began broadcasting on 3420 kHz on May 1, 1954. Radio Liberación was launched strategically on this day, which was a national holiday that many Guatemalans had off from work.

From then on, each day Phillips and his crew broadcast from 7 a.m. to 8 a.m. and from 9 p.m. to 10 p.m. — before and after work hours. Each broadcast had music, catch phrases and talking points delivered poetically. In between the sermon-like speeches, the DJs, Mario and Pepe, sprinkled in chatter, jokes and personal talk. Often, these voices from “a secret location within the republic” took on the tone of a friend filling you in on something.

Between the rumor mill about Árbenz’s tilt toward Communism — and the fact that the Árbenz administration had reported in January that Castillo Armas was plotting against him — the Guatemalan press didn’t seem to question whether the broadcasts really were coming from a group of anti-Communist exiles. 

Not that everyone believed all the hype from Radio Liberación’s speeches. The Guatemalan military was skeptical, having been filled in on how small Castillo Armas’s rebel group actually was.

Among the Guatemalan public, Radio Liberación was in the minority when it decried Árbenz, or even Communists. The president was popular, and it was well-known that the Communist Party was small. And besides, the Communists supported agrarian reform, which was incredibly popular with the poor majority of Guatemalans.

But in the 1950s, many Guatemalans still remembered the shady dealings of their pre-democracy dictators — and the smear campaign against Árbenz had created room for doubt about Árbenz too. So whereas many citizens approached the blatant propaganda on Radio Liberación with skepticism, they afforded similar skepticism to the rebuttals that the Árbenz government broadcast over official airwaves.

And with its heavy repetition, the radio’s assertions about Árbenz started sounding more and more plausible. “Familiarity and repetition,” says author Craig Silverman, “the more you hear something, over time the more you believe it’s true.”

Whether people initially believe your information is beside the point, though, media data expert Kathleen Jamieson explains. “What you want to do is change the media agenda,” she told us. “You want to change the balance of messages.” 

The more mentions of what you, the media manipulator, want discussed, the more that independent media feels pressured to report on it. And the more important those topics appear to the public.

In 2016, when Hillary Clinton fell ill at a 9/11 memorial ceremony, the Russian state news outlets RT and Sputnik released a drumbeat of stories questioning Clinton’s health. Russia’s network of disguised social media accounts promoted the narrative — along with conspiratorial stories about Clinton’s use of email while she was secretary of state. And when bad news came out about Trump, Russian state and social media broadcast deflection, which were picked up by Trump proponents, then discussed by the legitimate press.

The front page of the newspaper Prensa Libre claimed that a radio station had been found on the border near Honduras, May 4, 1954. (Image courtesy the authors)

In an authoritarian system where you see media structures controlled by those in power, it’s almost impossible to subvert the media agenda of those in power, Jamieson told us. But, she said, “in an open system you can get the inadvertent complicity of the existing media.”

The more Radio Liberación broadcast, the more the Guatemalan newspapers and rumor mills discussed what it had to say. Was Árbenz secretly in cahoots with the USSR? Were Guatemalan women really organizing against Communism? What was going to happen when the Liberation Army mobilized? 

Guatemala’s own civil liberties — the freedom of the press and freedom of speech that Árbenz had helped usher in with the democratic revolution — worked against it when the CIA began broadcasting lies. Broadcasting itself was legal. Communist newspapers were free to campaign for their causes, and anti-Árbenz detractors were free to talk shit about him on the radio. 

What was not legal, however, was for a foreign government to foment a revolution. Hiding behind the “free speech” of Radio Liberación was an international crime. 

Frustrated, Árbenz dispatched the military to search the jungle and find the station.

Phillips and Hunt claim that the whole of Guatemala eventually began tuning in to Radio Liberación with bated breath each night.

As propaganda men, it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t being a little hyperbolic. But CIA documents and Guatemalan news reports make it clear that the military, news media and a large portion of the public indeed paid close attention to the broadcasts, and that people who didn’t catch them live kept up on the brewing “revolution” through front page newspaper headlines. 

A CIA diagram of the radio transmission operation. (Documents courtesy NARA)

Some of Radio Liberación’s “news” was relatively small, which gave it the air of a broader devotion to serving Guatemalans, as opposed to simply smearing the government. The DJs held “man on the street” interviews at the May Day parade, getting opinions from (supposedly) regular Guatemalans on the news of the day. At one point, they reported that a woman had been insulted at the airport for carrying copies of El Rebelde, an anti-Communist publication. The DJs dedicated quite a bit of air time to teaching listeners patriotic song lyrics (which would turn out to be the “marching songs” of the Liberation Army). And they played plenty of music, from cumbia hits to the Berlin Symphony Orchestra. On Day 2, after delivering a 10-point treatise on why people should say no to Communism, Radio Liberación played “That’s Amore” by Dean Martin.

Guatemalan Labor Day parade, May 1, 1954. (Photo courtesy NARA)

As the station established itself, it began broadcasting bolder falsehoods: that Russia was happy because now it could send planes on bombing missions to Los Angeles and have them safely land in Guatemala if it wanted to; that the government was no longer paying public school teachers; that Árbenz was spending money on expensive furs and Cadillacs while donating to a Soviet atomic bomb fund; and even that Árbenz was doing exactly what the CIA was up to. “The government’s principal propaganda mechanisms,” Radio Liberación explained two weeks into broadcasting, “have been flooding the country with their disgusting product … in which salaried agitators try to win people over.”


Post-mortems credit the radio broadcasts as key to the success of the U.S.’s psychological warfare campaign against Árbenz. Though the CIA destroyed its
records from the Florida station where broadcasts were planned, and claimed to not have recordings of the broadcast reels, a Freedom of Information
request sent by Time magazine reporter Stephen Schlesinger in the 1970s may have inadvertently led to the broadcast reels being preserved and shelved
away for decades. We found tape recordings of those reels in 2020. See here for more details.


But the most chilling event was the broadcast that aired three and a half weeks in, on May 24. 

About eight minutes into a typical Radio Liberación show, listeners heard a commotion in the background. The DJ pressed on even as the banging sounds got louder and voices in the background shushed each other.

Then, suddenly, the DJ started panicking. He announced that the station was being attacked. 

The broadcast cut off midway through a woman’s scream. 


On May 24, 1954, Radio Liberación’s crew pretended to be attacked by government forces.