After almost six decades covering Latin American politicians, I am well acquainted with wizards of fake news and their tactics. I was reporting on them long before Donald Trump became a politician. Still, Trump lies a lot. But questioning almost everything that the president of the United States says comes pretty naturally to me.
When it comes to Trump’s lies, there are the flat-out ones, like when Trump likened Mexican immigrants to “rapists,” or when he boasted that his Inauguration Day audience was the largest ever. You only had to look at the numbers and a few photographs to realize that he was lying.
In fact, according to The Washington Post, Trump publicly made false or misleading statements 1,628 times in his first 298 days in office, most of which made the news. That’s an average of about 5.5 such claims a day. But I’m not surprised.
Hugo Chavez, the late president of Venezuela, was a big liar. I remember when, as a candidate in 1998, Chavez assured me that if he became president, he would relinquish power within five years and would not try to nationalize private companies, nor the media. The dictator died after ruling Venezuela for 14 years, while censoring news and setting the stage for the economic disaster Venezuela is going through now. (Here’s an interview I did with Chavez: bit.ly/1y5kV4J)
When I asked candidate Chavez about Cuba, he told me: “Yes, it is a dictatorship.” But once he became president, Chavez never said it again. On the contrary, he even sought guidance from Fidel Castro.
Castro was a great liar, too. Using as excuses national sovereignty and the defense of the revolution, he imposed a system in which he was the nation’s sole leader. This Cuban-style “democracy” allowed him to rule the island for 52 years. After he finally stepped down, he handpicked his brother Raul to rule the country.
Mexican politicians have refined the art of handpicking their leaders in a similar manner. From 1929 to 2000, every ruling president chose his successor. Of course the astonishing thing was that politicians would always put up a big, theatrical display to make Mexicans believe the winner had actually been chosen by the people.
I clearly remember the fraudulent elections of 1988, when Carlos Salinas de Gortari “won” 1,762 precinctswith 100% of the vote. This would have meant that, on that day, voters from all those constituencies made exactly the same decision, and that all of them — all of them! — favored him.
To cover up the fraud in 1988, with the assistance of other political parties, the winning party decided to burn all the ballots so nobody could count them (here is an old interview with Salinas de Gortari in which he insists, in minute 6, that there was no fraud in 1988: bit.ly/2hZ5NZY). In fact, the Institutional Revolutionary Party lied for seven decades to hold on to the presidency, and it will certainly lie again in 2018 if we allow it to happen.
Mexican, Cuban and Venezuelan politicians have taught me, first and foremost, that you cannot trust them; you must always be suspicious of the official version of any story. And when you meet with them, you greet them, then you doubt them.
In my career I’ve spoken with Latin American politicians who said they were not millionaires, only to learn later that they owned luxurious mansions and held foreign bank accounts. Politicians have told me they would not seek re-election, then changed the constitution in order to seek another term. I have heard all kinds of pledges through the years, including promises to fight crime or curb spending. Leaders have broken every pledge.
Right-wing and left-wing liars are equally brutal. Fidel Castro was no worse than Augusto Pinochet. Both violated human rights, killed their own citizens, seized power through violence and lied and pushed fake news to control their governments.
That’s why I’m not surprised by Trump’s lies. He’s just like many other liars I’ve met. The difference is that his lies go viral on social media. Many of us have seen this brand of politician before.
Castro, Chavez, Salinas de Gortari, Pinochet and others were the true wizards of fake news. In fact, they were the masters.