How to Subvert a Democracy, Stage 6: Cover Your Tracks

Once you have obtained the future you were fighting for, it’s time to rewrite history.

How to Subvert a Democracy, Stage 6: Cover Your Tracks

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Stage 6 in the CIA’s step-by-step plan to overthrow the government of Guatemala.

After Jacobo Árbenz went into exile, CIA agents took reporters on a tour of his abandoned home. Journalists from The New York Times and several other newspapers showed up, having been promised juicy evidence that a Communist foothold in the Americas had been averted.

This was part of the final task that David Phillips and others from the CIA propaganda team had been assigned: Prove to the world that ousting Árbenz had been a good idea.

In his memoir, Phillips described the assignment as a “pleasant” month involving games of bridge and golf with Ambassador Peurifoy, along with gleaning “information to be disseminated abroad … which would demonstrate the extent of Soviet involvement with the regime of Árbenz.”

Ambassador Peurifoy accompanied by members of the Guatemalan military, 1954. (Photo courtesy The Center for Mesoamerican Research/Fototeca Guatemala at CIRMA)

The ultimate stage of the CIA’s info-war playbook against Guatemala, “Consolidation,” was designed to make sure that the U.S.’s preferred version of the events came true — or rather, that it became the official story that journalists and historians would reference moving forward. This effort became its own official CIA operation, dubbed PBHistory.

The very day that Árbenz resigned, CIA headquarters telegrammed orders to broadcast something on Radio Liberación to make sure that Guatemalans didn’t think that Castillo Armas was a “UFCO man.” (UFCO had been supplying him and the CIA with transportation, telegraph and radio relays, and publicity assistance from the beginning.) CIA Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner released a press release–style memo stating, “The United Fruit Company simply does not figure into this at all.” Two days earlier, the CIA had telegrammed the State Department requesting that the U.S. government itself release an official statement in support of agrarian reform somewhere else in the world, so that they could refute the story about the U.S. intervening because of Árbenz’s reforms.

The CIA needed to bring forth “evidence” of Árbenz’s guilt, so that the U.S. could officially recognize Castillo Armas’s new regime as Guatemala’s legitimate government. And that meant that Guatemala needed to release official documents and bold declarations into the domestic and international media in order to control the narrative.

First, CIA agents raided Árbenz’s residence to try to find legitimate evidence that Árbenz was under Soviet control. Inside the agency itself, few people were aware that the Árbenz-Moscow connection had actually been concocted by United Fruit and the Dulleses.

As such, the CIA agents who rifled through Árbenz’s possessions were unable to find evidence that he was a Communist or in communication with Moscow. The only thing that came close was a biography of Lenin that they found on Árbenz’s bookshelf, alongside books about Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and other world leaders.

CIA documents indicate that the agents seemed genuinely surprised that they couldn’t find hard evidence of Árbenz being a Soviet ally, which speaks to the effectiveness the disinformation campaign had in creating plausible deniability, even among the U.S. players.

It seems quite likely that the Dulles brothers hoped that Árbenz actually would prove himself to be a Communist, so that they wouldn’t need to use Communism as simply a pretext to intervene in Guatemala. Intervening would be good for United Fruit, and therefore America; wouldn’t it be doubly good if it also became a win against Communism for Eisenhower’s administration?

But by framing this hope as fact in the official materials used to launch PBSuccess, the Dulleses ensured that future agents would use confirmation bias to see Communism even in flimsy evidence — such as when they learned that Guatemala’s freedom of speech laws protected Communists, or when they parsed bombastic statements by the Communists themselves, who had their own PR interest in inflating their status.

Coming up rather empty — but still certain of their conclusion — the CIA decided to plant some “evidence” in Árbenz’s home before the press arrived. One PBHistory report reassured CIA higher-ups that photos would be prepared, “slanted” articles would be written, and “[n]aturally there will be other on-the-spot innovations and preparation of black material whenever possible.” In an attempt to make Árbenz out to be some sort of Soviet-fetishizing collector, the agents brought in stacks of Soviet schoolbooks and some bags of dirt labeled with the names of different Soviet republics. A CIA telegram from its headquarters about false materials that had been “discovered” (they actually put “discovered” in quotes) asked, “what can we cite as the source of these documents?” and instructed that “[t]his ‘sourcing’ should of course be in form acceptable to regime.”

But when the journalists showed up, they recognized that owning Communist history books was not proof of Communist allegiance — if the books were even his — and that the bags of dirt were either fake evidence or flimsy proof at best. It certainly wasn’t enough to counteract four years of evidence that Árbenz had governed as a left-leaning reformist from an independent party.

This didn’t, however, stop the CIA from planting stories of this “proof” of Árbenz’s Communist allegiance in the press, which in turn were referred to in future history books.

Though some of the Guatemalan public had believed the accusations of Communism by Radio Liberación and the rumor campaigns, much of the public remained unconvinced that it would have been a bad thing. Guatemala’s public Communists had supported agrarian reform and showed no desire for an authoritarian system like Moscow’s.

Since the CIA was unable to make a persuasive enough case on the Communism front to Guatemalans, the anti-Árbenz coalition began feeding the press conspiracy theories about the legitimacy of Árbenz’s rise to power in the first place. U.S. Justice Department records reveal that by 1955, Castillo Armas’s government had paid United Fruit’s right-wing public relations firm John Clements Associates $18,370 (more than $176,000 in today’s dollars) to run PR on its behalf.

For the Guatemalan public, the thinking went, it wouldn’t matter whether Árbenz was a Communist or not if the press could convince the people that he had been a villain regardless.

So, immediately after Árbenz stepped down, the front pages of Guatemalan newspapers began relentlessly discussing two things: First, for the left, that Árbenz was a quitter who didn’t care about his country. And for the right: a conspiracy theory that had previously been put to bed, in 1949, about the death of Árbenz’s partner in the revolution, Colonel Francisco Arana, who had been killed while resisting arrest for trying to overthrow the government of Árbenz’s predecessor, President Arevalo.

The newspapers pointed out that Árbenz had benefited from Arana’s death, because Arana would have been a chief rival in the election had he run for president. The papers rehashed the mysterious circumstances of Arana’s death again and again — even though if anyone was implicated, it was Arevalo. But the Castillo Armas–controlled punditry continued stoking the conspiracy until the press could come to the CIA’s desired talking point: Árbenz was a quitter and a murderer.

Perhaps most disturbingly, the United Fruit Company supplied photos to international reporters of mutilated bodies about to be buried in a mass grave and cited them as evidence that Árbenz’s government had been killing dissidents. For decades afterward, historians noted that Árbenz had blood on his hands for these extrajudicial killings; the CIA kept the photos and eventually gave them to the U.S. National Archives as official history on Árbenz. But United Fruit publicist and eventual vice president Thomas McCann, who had helped distribute the photographs, later confessed that he had no idea where they had come from. For all UFCO’s PR team knew, the photos could have been of people that Castillo Armas had killed — or earthquake victims. But, McCann wrote in his memoir, “they were widely accepted for what they were purported to be.”

Newspaper clip reporting on “proof” of the communist killings. (Image courtesy the authors)


“Mass grave” image distributed by the United Fruit Company to international reporters.



There is a chilling corollary in what happened post-Árbenz to what Russia did after interfering in the U.S.’s 2016 election. Once Russia had succeeded in changing the American media narrative and suppressing Clinton voters, the Kremlin embarked on its own effort to rewrite history.

Fake news articles and conspiracy theories poured out alleging that Hillary Clinton was a murderer, a criminal and a thief. The infamous “Pizzagate” story that falsely claimed that Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a pizza parlor in Washington, D.C., continued to percolate after the election — to the point that a 28-year-old man brought an assault rifle to the pizza parlor in December to “rescue” the children. The Pizzagate lie bears a striking resemblance to an official field memo that the CIA circulated on March 2, 1954 (during the early stages of Operation PBSuccess), entitled “Idea to Discredit Árbenz.” The memo outlined a plan to seed a (false) story in the Guatemalan press about Árbenz having a habit of hosting secret “morphine parties” and “girl orgies” where he and his friends would dope up girls and take turns having sex with them — “according to Commie tradition” — until the men were exhausted. The story, according to the memo, “Would be strictly character killing including fake photos.”

To further rewrite 2016’s history, Russia’s own state-controlled media company RT reported that “studies” proved that Russia had not meddled in the U.S. election. Donald Trump had won all on his own, according to Putin. Just like Castillo Armas had overthrown Árbenz all on his own, according to Dulles.

Like Castillo Armas and his supporters, President-elect Trump and his team were glad to promote stories defending the legitimacy of their win. Whether they knew about the extent of Russia’s influence or not, the Special Counsel’s investigation found that they were eager to accept any help they could get, and eager to play up even fake news that bolstered Trump’s image. And why not? Once again, human confirmation bias made people see what they wanted to believe.

When vote tallies showed that Clinton had won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, Kremlin-backed news and social media networks promoted fake news about how millions of people had voted illegally. The Trump team eagerly quoted this fake news.

The aggressiveness of the anti-Árbenz newspaper campaign in the weeks following his exile is suspicious at best — and as CIA documents indicate, malicious on the part of Castillo Armas and his American co-conspirators. The goal was to carve the story into stone that Castillo Armas was not the usurper: Árbenz was.

This blame reversal is perhaps one of the most ingenious parts of the playbook: Pin your own crimes on your enemy. Even better, let a third party with a vested interest do the pinning.

Even after being caught red-handed by U.S. intelligence investigations in the years following the 2016 meddling, Putin was delighted to support efforts to blame Ukraine for the Russian interference in the U.S. election. And because it was in President Trump’s interest for the story of Russian interference to turn out not to be true, Putin didn’t even need to push hard; Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani could play up the Ukraine-blame story, and Russia could simply support it.

A political cartoon clip in the Mundo Libre newspaper encouraged Colonel Castillo Armas to sweep out all the “communist trash.” (Image courtesy the authors)

Even more head-spinning than the Blame Reversal is the Blame-Blame Reversal. This is when the guilty party, upon being blamed, deflects by blaming whoever pointed out their guilt.

When the international press began asking questions about the U.S.’s involvement in the 1954 regime change in Guatemala, the U.S. threw the blame onto the Russians by claiming that Moscow had helped the Guatemalans “stage a frameup” against the U.S. Embassy and U.S. companies. They accused Russia of providing arms to Guatemala, and pointed to a Soviet veto of a U.N. vote to condemn Communism in Latin America as further “proof” that the Kremlin was trying to undermine the U.S.

In an ironic twist, when the American press called out Russia for interfering in the 2016 election, Russia claimed that by blaming Russia, U.S. Democrats were showing that they were actually the guilty ones.

The result of this is enough confusion to get people to give up — in this case to give up on knowing the truth. And in that vacuum, the story promoted by those in power has an outsize opportunity to become official history.

To that end, the CIA drafted “pronouncements” for Castillo Armas to make upon taking power, like declaring that Árbenz had been a Soviet puppet, and calling the public to arms to “kill” the widespread Communism that had taken root in the country.

Within the U.S. government itself, the “official” CIA version of events was passed down until it retroactively became true as well.

Perhaps the biggest evidence of PBHistory’s success is the fact that so much of the propaganda from the operation has been repeated by independent historians as fact — and that those historians have become the authorities that are now referenced by other historians — which means that untangling the truth often leads modern investigators to throw up their hands and say “whatever.” For example, we noticed that Wikipedia today says that Árbenz became a Communist in 1957 after his overthrow — despite the fact that Árbenz’s widow, Maria Vilanova, denied any Communist affiliations in her memoir. Wikipedia’s source is historian Piero Gleijeses’ 1991 book Shattered Hope. When we asked Gleijeses what his source was, he told us that there was no primary documentation. Though there were no Communist Party records, and no statements from Árbenz himself, Gleijeses told us that he had become convinced by the circumstantial evidence — that people were saying it at the time — and because the Communist leader José Manuel Fortuny, whom Gleijeses was personally friends with, had told him that he believed that Árbenz had always been a Communist at heart.

We found CIA documents that show that this is exactly what the U.S. wanted the world to believe. In 1957, extensive instructions were sent for a discrediting campaign as Árbenz moved to Uruguay, based on reports sent by a spy known as “INLUCK,” a.k.a. the former Communist Carlos Pellecer. The information was to be given to politicians and news reporters in-country, and it included extensive information about Árbenz’s correspondence with Communist Party leaders in Guatemala, the mass murder photographs, and an order for a fake psychiatrist evaluation.

Uruguayan historian Roberto Garcia Ferreira, perhaps the leading expert on post-exile Árbenz history, expressed skepticism when we asked him to help clear up the detail about Árbenz joining the Communist Party. Though some sources indicate that Árbenz did become a Communist, Dr. Garcia Ferreira told us, in Spanish, “Fortuny is not a good or trustworthy information source about this.” Really all we know for sure is that Árbenz was eventually invited to take asylum in Communist-friendly countries, where he was “alone, cornered, with mental health problems,” as Garcia Ferreira put it. Even if Árbenz did align with Communists as the CIA chased him around the globe — or even if he’d secretly believed in Communism all along while governing more moderately — Garcia Ferreira noted, “the overthrow was motivated by other issues.”

In other words: Who knows? And yet, the CIA spent years making sure people believed something Árbenz never publicly said or took action on.

Compartmentalization within the CIA made it easier to rewrite — or muddy — the history. When David Phillips wrote about Radio Liberación in his memoir, he said that Árbenz had distributed arms to a peasant army, had illegally suspended civil liberties and murdered dissidents, and that documents left behind by Árbenz showed evidence that he was working to establish a Soviet beachhead in the Americas. These claims were all false. Phillips’s account (along with his boss E. Howard Hunt’s) became the primary material in the propaganda campaign for Nick Cullather’s official CIA history, Gleijeses’ Shattered Hope, and journalists Stephen Schlesinger and Stephen Kinzer’s 1982 investigative book Bitter Fruit — all of whom were sincerely working to get to the truth. And yet, falsehoods and errors that Phillips made in his memoir, such as misremembering the radio station name as Voice of Liberation instead of Radio Liberación, made their way into all of these official history books. (The actual recordings reveal that the station was not called Voice of Liberation, or in Spanish, La Voz de Liberación.)

But the fact that CIA propagandists’ false accounts have become the primary source material for so much of the history that the world has believed for 70 years ironically lends believability to the most dramatic claim Phillips made in his recollection of PBSuccess. He summarized it in a quote he attributed to the British ambassador:

“The war was won by that radio station.”



The next step in creating an alternate history was to round up any Árbenz supporters who would be likely to expose the U.S.’s involvement.

After Castillo Armas took power, the CIA handed him a list of Guatemalans whom he might want to make disappear. Though the CIA to this day claims that they did not assassinate anyone in Guatemala, the agency’s own documents indicate that the CIA made a list of people for Castillo Armas to kill. And during the operation itself, CIA agents routinely recommended assassination as a solution. To that end, the agency produced a handy manual on how to conduct such assassinations. Even U.S. diplomats discussed assassination in at least one State Department meeting, suggesting, “The best way to bring about the fall of the Árbenz government would be to eliminate 15-20 of its leaders with Trujillo’s trained pistoleros.”

During Castillo Armas’s time in power, hundreds of dissidents and former Árbenz supporters did disappear. The members of the Communist Party who didn’t escape the country were rounded up and executed. This cleansing became a pattern for the dictators who took power from each other after Castillo Armas as well. Over the next 30 years, as many as 200,000 civilians were rounded up and disappeared by the Guatemalan government.

Soon after PBSuccess and PBHistory wrapped up, some of the U.S. conspirators with the biggest mouths — and intimate knowledge of the most public CIA lies — met untimely deaths too. Ambassador Peurifoy, whom Hunt had called “expendable,” was transferred to Thailand and soon thereafter was killed when a mysterious truck ran him off the road in the jungle. Historians have noted the suspicious timing and circumstances of Peurifoy’s death — and the fact that he had loose lips — but we couldn’t find evidence to support conspiracy theories that claim he was killed as part of a cover-up. Mario and Pepe were gunned down in random acts of violence relatively soon after they returned to their homes in Guatemala, though long enough after the coup that it’s less likely they were part of a cleanup operation. CIA Deputy Director of Plans Frank Wisner soon suffered a mental breakdown and left the agency. He killed himself a few years later.

The only surviving conspirators with full knowledge of the facts — the Dulleses, Tracy Barnes and a few others — went on to plot similar overthrows in Cuba, Chile and elsewhere. The fake history of Operation PBSuccess — which became solidified as the official U.S. history of the operation — led to false confidence in future CIA missions, such as the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion.

Perhaps the saddest part of the CIA’s information cleanup operation was what it meant for Jacobo Árbenz. To maintain the official story, the CIA needed Árbenz to forever be a Communist and not become a martyr.

So agents chased Árbenz around the globe. Every time he and his family tried to put down roots — first in Mexico, then in Switzerland, then France — the U.S. managed to twist foreign leaders’ arms to expel him. As Uruguayan historian Roberto Garcia Ferreira has noted in his exhaustive studies of Árbenz’s post-exile history, the CIA did so in order to “demonstrate the supposed communist connections of the deposed regime.” By locking Árbenz out of democratic countries, they could force him to relocate to somewhere within the Soviet Union, and therefore “associate Árbenz’s supporters with Moscow.”

The Árbenzes eventually did go to Russia, but were sent away, finally landing in Uruguay, where Árbenz supposedly returned to alcoholism (he had been sober since getting into politics) — a detail that CIA rumor agents made hay of — and reunited with the exiled Guatemalan President Arevalo. He would move to Cuba, where the budding Castro regime did not make him feel at home, then eventually back to Mexico.

Meanwhile, the CIA pulled out of Guatemala. Castillo Armas cracked down on liberals and peasants, and gave United Fruit its land back — for free. And the democratic vacuum left by Árbenz’s departure was quickly filled.

With chaos.



Carlos Castillo Armas was the luckiest man in Guatemala.

He had been neither the CIA’s first nor second choice for Árbenz’s replacement. Various CIA memos and cables during PBSuccess were devoted to talking shit about the colonel. As one declassified memorandum put it, “He is a firmly stubborn man who in the face of indisputable evidence is prone to maintain his own point of view.”

Yet he was an easy man for a powerful foreign government to manipulate — and he was willing to follow any anti-Árbenz lead that was handed to him. And so he became, against all odds and with relatively little effort, the president.

However, the same things that made Castillo Armas an excellent CIA tool — his ignorance, his ego, and his desire for absolute power — made him a disastrous head of state.

Political infighting took a front seat over policy. Crime escalated nationwide. The economy tanked. And whereas the U.S. had invested just $3 million in overthrowing Árbenz, within a year it had to plow at least $53 million in aid into Guatemala — and eventually much more — in order to keep it from collapsing (which would have cast doubt on the wisdom of removing Árbenz).

Castillo Armas wasn’t lucky for very long. In the third year of his presidency, he was assassinated. His successor, a right-wing general named Miguel Ydígoras Fuentes, whom the CIA had originally rejected as a candidate for “Liberator” and later described as a “moody, almost schizophrenic, individual” won what was believed to be a fraudulent election and put an iron fist down. Thousands of people disappeared before Ydígoras Fuentes was defeated by a rival and fled into exile. Over the next 30 years, between 40,000 and 50,000 more people disappeared as Guatemala descended into a civil war that cost over 200,000 civilian lives, kept millions in poverty, and allowed drug cartels to exert control over the government.

Mexican artist Diego Rivera’s mural “Gloriosa Victoria” shows John Foster Dulles shaking hands with Carlos Castillo Armas, surrounded by other key figures. In the decades since the 1954 coup, it’s become well-known in Latin America that the U.S. was behind Árbenz’s ouster; however, the outsized role that media manipulation played in the overthrow plan has been largely ignored or classified until recently. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

These conditions have led millions to leave Guatemala since the fall of Árbenz. Many have immigrated (or attempted to immigrate) to the U.S. — meaning that much of the immigration crisis at our southern border stems from the very chaos that PBSuccess set in motion.

But the destabilization of Central America wasn’t the only legacy left by the CIA’s operation to overthrow Árbenz.

Five years after witnessing Radio Liberación’s role in the fall of democratic Guatemala, Che Guevara launched his own guerrilla radio station in the jungle of eastern Cuba to fight an information war against Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. He took the CIA’s tactic of using the radio to deliver a counter-narrative directly to the public and thereby subvert the government. (Though Guevara had a strict rule about only telling the truth on the radio.) In other words, the CIA indirectly helped put a soon-to-be enemy of the state in power in Havana. (After Fidel Castro took power, slid left into socialism, killed his allies, and eventually sent Guevara to his death in Bolivia, this radio station became a propaganda channel for Castro’s regime in the same way that the Kremlin uses RT and Sputnik to fill its country with pro-government falsehoods.)

And of course, the outcome of PBSuccess led the CIA to attempt similar operations in Chile, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cuba and elsewhere. And all of this in turn has informed Russia and its web of black PR operators as they’ve continually worked to undermine American interests.

Operation PBSuccess didn’t invent the idea of information warfare — or even guerrilla radio. But it honed both to a science. And 15 presidential elections later, in 2016, when that same science was used against America, the U.S. government still hadn’t developed a mechanism to counter its own 60-year-old playbook.

It was as if the U.S. had hit itself in the head with its own boomerang.

Not long after President Trump assumed office, U.S. intelligence began sounding alarms about the coming avalanche of 2020 election manipulation. In testimony to Congress after his two-year investigation into the 2016 election interference, Special Counsel Robert Mueller warned that Russia was continuing its electoral meddling: “They’re doing it as we sit here.” In October 2019, Facebook revealed that it had taken down 75,000 posts from foreign-run Facebook and Instagram accounts that were attempting to interfere in the 2020 race. By August 2020, U.S. intelligence officials had publicly announced that not only were several countries interested in influencing the 2020 election but also that Russia was actively interfering in a repeat of what it did against Hillary Clinton in 2016. “We assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former Vice President Biden,” said William Evanina, director of the National Counterintelligence and Security Center.

Even if it’s in a modern leader’s electoral interest to let a foreign government interfere on his behalf, some experts believe that the American press and public will now be more vigilant when a state actor tries to pull wool over our eyes. As former President George W. Bush said, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me … You can’t get fooled again.” Though the U.S. has been using disinformation to influence elections in other countries for decades now, 2016 was the first time that it so clearly happened to us. So, hopefully, knowing that these campaigns work — and how they work — can help us be more discerning in the future.

But bad actors evolve too, as fake news expert Craig Silverman points out. “They have to up their game to a certain extent,” he says. “At the same time, there is a tremendous amount of innovation and conflict in American society right now, and that is the raw material to use.”

And, unfortunately, the American public may have to do its discerning without much help from the social media platforms on which the fake content goes viral. Though Facebook, for example, has claimed that it’s taken action to prevent election news manipulation in the future, a damning recent report shows how the site was unable to prevent the spread of fake news about the coronavirus — revealing how underprepared the company is to handle new, evolving types of misinformation. “Facebook is absolutely terrified of having the same kind of situation happen in 2020 that happened in 2016 and having the blame and frustration focused toward it,” Silverman told us. “But I don’t think the stuff that we’ve been seeing from them lately has been inspiring a lot of confidence.”

A 2016 general election ballot, listing the presidential and vice presidential candidates. (Photo by Corey Taratuta, via Wikimedia)

In particular, Silverman says he worries about Facebook Groups, which are often more local, more private, and more trusted by the people who belong to them. “The big concern is that rumors or consciously created misinformation can really catch fire in these groups. And then by the time a journalist or an investigator at Facebook or someone else realizes what’s going on there, it’s already really taken hold,” Silverman told us. “They’re arguably even more of an issue in 2020 because Facebook has made Groups content even more pronounced in the feed.”

Emboldened by the visible success — and getaway — of the Kremlin’s 2016 interference campaign, Russia, China and other American foes have become “more adept at using social media to alter how we think, behave and decide,” according to the U.S. intelligence’s Worldwide Threat Assessment. Perhaps even more concerning, American political operatives “are beginning to adopt the same tactics of information warfare,” as McKay Coppins recently put it in The Atlantic — which further complicates things for would-be voters.

Senators Marco Rubio and Chris Van Hollen have introduced a bipartisan bill to Congress called the DETER Act, which would create automatic sanctions on any country that meddles in U.S. elections — sanctions that the winner of the election would not be able to lift. The bill has stalled, but it points to what Dr. Kathleen Jamieson of UPenn says is a big part of the solution: “Make the costs so high that you’ll disincentivize these practices.” Such aggressive action against meddling could lead to a global cyber treaty that Jamieson believes even Russia would sign.

While it’s conceivable that we could rally the world together to outwardly agree to “no meddling allowed,” the fact of human psychology is, as Silverman points out, “We are biased to believe things that align with our worldview.” So as long as there are Castillo Armases to benefit from misinformation campaigns — and ways to create plausible deniability — there will be fake news.

Given the uncanny parallels between 1954 and 2016, there are plenty of lessons we can take from this story: The power of public appearance, the vulnerabilities that democracy creates if people don’t remain united in favor of it, the power of information weapons — and how they’re most effectively wielded.

But if there is a most important lesson to remember, it might just be this:

Winning at psychological warfare isn’t about convincing people to do things they’d never do. It’s about getting them to give up.

“The misunderstanding people have about the electoral impact of the trolls and hackers is that they think that they were trying to change votes — that they were trying to make Democrats into Republicans,” Dr. Jamieson told us, regarding 2016. “But they weren’t. They were trying to mobilize and demobilize.”

In a 2018 analysis of the Kremlin-backed Internet Research Agency’s media manipulation efforts, University of Wisconsin’s Dr. Young Mie Kim found that that’s exactly what happened: “The IRA operated voter suppression campaigns,” Kim reported, and “deliberately targeted nonwhite voters, especially African Americans” in an attempt to get them to vote for a third-party candidate or to not vote at all.

The Kremlin’s campaign — starting with seeds of doubt and culminating in strategically timed disclosures, amplified divisionary content, and damaging fake news stories — had an aggregate effect of demoralizing voters who intended to vote for the candidate that Russia didn’t want.

“Polling data suggest they were effective at stopping people from voting for Hillary Clinton,” Dr. Jamieson explained. “If the disinformation in any combination dropped Hillary Clinton by one percent nationally, then we don’t even need to ask about the battleground states. They’ve already decisively affected the election.”

No matter the decade or the technology, in other words, the media manipulation playbook for undermining democracy is not about persuading people to switch sides in a battle. It’s about persuading people to not exercise their power.

Jacobo Árbenz was by no means a perfect president. He made decisions that made his overthrow easier — like the Alfhem arms purchase. His politics may have been further left than the kinds of allies he needed could get on board with. And his outspoken Guatemalan nationalism and tolerance toward democratic communists in his country provoked the United States.

But none of that is illegal. He was elected democratically. Árbenz governed with integrity. He’s widely considered Guatemala’s best president, its least corrupt in history. He was a principled defender of freedom of speech, religious and political tolerance, and dignity for working people.

And the U.S. government destroyed his life and his country for it.

After being harassed by American spies and diplomats for more than a decade, Árbenz finally settled down back in Mexico City, where he sunk into depression and alcoholism. Following his daughter’s suicide in the mid-1960s, his relationship with his wife, Maria, became depressed too. They still loved each other — and stayed together, despite spending long periods of time apart — but he’d lost the quiet intensity that had once made him so compelling.

Jacobo Árbenz and his wife María Vilanova, 1955. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia)

“Some people have their moment in history,” Piero Gleijeses told us in an interview, remembering his talks with Árbenz’s widow before her death. “Jacobo and Maria Árbenz’s was 1950 to 1954.”

This man who was on track to become a legend in Latin American politics — a statesman who had liberated his country from a dictatorship and ushered in democracy and reform — hadn’t just lost his power. He’d let go of it too.

Truthfully, the American government and all its radio hoaxes and cockamamie spy games didn’t overpower Jacobo Árbenz. They tricked him and his supporters into giving up.

And on January 27, 1971, at the age of 57, Jacobo Árbenz climbed into his bathtub, slipped beneath the surface, and drowned.


Special thanks to our researchers Mayari Rizzo and Luis Pablo Rizzo in Guatemala City for their help making this story possible. While we were finishing this project, Maya began chemotherapy for ovarian cancer; we’ve set up a GoFundMe to help with her treatment here.