In the 1960s, Che Guevara sought to topple Latin American governments aligned with the U.S. and install new authoritarian regimes in the mold of Cuba. Using election manipulation, Russian President Vladimir Putin seeks to do the same thing today.
U.S. intelligence officials have picked up information, via social media and disinformation in the press, indicating that Russia is playing a role in the upcoming Mexican and Colombian elections in 2018, looking for candidates in Nicolas Maduro’s mold, or to at least create Venezuela-style chaos.
Making Mexico Venezuela Again
National Security Adviser General H. R. McMaster informed the Jamestown Foundation that Mexican voters were being targeted by Russian operatives and bots, the same way American and European voters received their propaganda. He noted that U.S. intelligence had picked up “initial signs” of Russia’s “sophisticated campaigns of subversion and disinformation and propaganda” in the Mexican election.
Of the candidates, Putin prefers former Mexico City Mayor Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, otherwise known as AMLO. Lopez Obrador was the leftist PRD candidate in 2006 who amassed a lead so great that he skipped a debate. However, Felipe Calderon of the Center-Right PAN, won narrowly. Lopez Obrador refused to respect the outcome, claimed that Mexican soap operas were secretly transmitting messages to the people, and organized street demonstrations to undermine the results. But protesters began to fade away from his cause.
Then Lopez Obrador, who thought the PRD wasn’t leftist enough for him, created the Morena Party. He has refused to condemn the killings of opposition members in Venezuela and support free and fair elections in Maduro’s regime.
The Russian ambassador denies any such machinations by his government, but Russian outlet RT called an AMLO campaign official “our man in Mexico.” The unpopular, corrupt regime of PRI President Enrique Pena Nieto gives Lopez Obrador an opening with voters. And with several parties running (PAN, PRD, PRI, Morena), anything’s possible, especially for Lopez Obrador, the best known of the bunch due to his 2006 and 2012 campaigns. He is leading in the polls, though only by a few points, against Margarita Zavala, the PAN candidate, who would become the first woman to become president of Mexico.
Creating Chaos in Colombia
It’s a little harder to figure out Russians’ end game in Colombia because they don’t seem to prefer a particular candidate. But that hasn’t stopped Putin’s operatives from demonstrating their ability to sow chaos in Colombia.
In 2016, Colombian voters voted on a carefully negotiated peace deal between the democratically elected government and the FARC, a Marxist terrorist group supported by Hugo Chavez and Russia that had been waging one of the longest insurgencies in history. But disinformation played a major role in the vote and the country ultimately rejected a peace agreement with the FARC. And Russia is already touting FARC members for political office in this year’s election. Such attempts to bring stability to the country are likely to run into trouble with propaganda penetrating social media ahead of the election in 2018.
What Can America Do?
Thankfully, American intelligence agencies have become more adept at spotting Russian interference. The concern is bipartisan, too, as members of both parties are sounding the alarm. At a conference, a homeland security expert told me that when it comes to cybersecurity, America has excellent offense and a poor defense. It’s time the latter got some serious attention.
The American people don’t want a Venezuela on their border or more Latin American countries to experience a wave of leaders like Nicolas Maduro. It’s time to build closer ties, politically, economically and socially. The United States must realize that a stable Latin America, especially Mexico, is just as important, if not more, for reducing immigration as building a wall is. And if more countries fall under the Russian orbit, the world will look a lot more like it threatened to look in Che Guevara’s days.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.