The Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections caught the world by surprise. This wasn’t because election interference of that kind hadn’t happened before—it had, just ask the Ukrainians—but simply because no one thought the Kremlin would dare to challenge one of the world’s great powers so blatantly. The events of 2016 certainly woke the United States and Western European governments from their slumber. Several high-profile efforts are underway to secure and defend democracy in the digital age. Most of these activities, however, focus on the United States and Europe. Other regions may be at equal, if not greater, risk of interference. This is especially true of Latin America, where, in 2018 alone, the people of Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Mexico, Paraguay and Venezuela are to elect new leaders. Peace and stability in the Western Hemisphere is in the U.S. national interest. Preserving it will require efforts to protect the liberal democracies of Latin America that, in most cases, are just a few decades old.
One of the biggest strategic uncertainties in counteracting Russian interference remains the scope of President Vladimir Putin’s ambition. The U.S. intelligence community’s 2017 assessment explicitly concludes that Putin ordered the interference in the U.S. elections. Will his focus remain the pursuit of a Greater Eurasia? Or has Putin “gone global” in recent years? With regard to election interference specifically, were his actions primarily driven by deeply personal motives and animosity toward Hillary Clinton, as the U.S. intelligence community concluded? Or has he acquired a taste for the new opportunities presented by exploiting the Internet to further his political objectives? The answers to these questions are not mutually exclusive. And the fact that leading Russia experts cannot agree suggests that it is worth at least considering the potential risks of Putin acting in pursuit of more globalist ambitions.
Looking at the current geopolitical landscape, Latin America arguably remains a region of relative calm that has been on a promising trajectory toward greater peace and stability. Interstate conflict has become increasingly rare, and countries in the region, with a few notable exceptions, have made remarkable progress in transitioning from dictatorships to liberal democracies. That said, these trends remain vulnerable to disruption, as Brazil’s recent political turmoil illustrates. Emerging evidence suggests that Russian interference tries to specifically exploit polarization and differences in a country’s population, ranging from America’s division over race and immigrants to Germany’s controversy over refugees. Notwithstanding the significant progress made in the region, Latin America still exhibits significant political polarization, social friction and income inequality, attributes that could make it ripe for similar interference. In fact, the World Economic Forum describes Latin America as the “world’s most unequal region.” Put another way, there is no paucity of issues and divisions for Russia to exploit.
There are two intertwined reasons the Kremlin might increase its activities in Latin America: first, to better project its authoritarian influence by undermining liberal democracies generally; and, second, to meddle in Latin America specifically because of its geographic proximity and traditional strategic importance to the United States. These intertwined motives can be seen in Russian efforts to prop up like-minded regimes such as the Nicolas Maduro government in Venezuela, despite the humanitarian tragedy unfolding there. “In return,” as the New York Times has noted, “Moscow is getting a strategic advantage in Washington’s backyard.” Russia is also putting pressure on governments critical of the Kremlin to maintain access to means of public influence through the media. For example, when the election of Mauricio Macri as president of Argentina threatened Russian influence, Russia launched an aggressive advocacy campaign to preserve its media presence in the country. Indeed, Russia’s preferred technique of influence-peddling and information manipulation is to aggressively distort the information that audiences in target countries receive over media in order to manipulate them, in what a recent study by the National Endowment for Democracy calls “sharp power.” It comes as no surprise, then, that Moscow has been working to ensure that Russia Today has a growing regional presence and to increase funding for its Spanish-language outlet RT en Español. And while Russian motives are not known for certain, the jump from these “sharp power” activities to electoral interference is not a long one. Indeed, this past December, U.S. National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster warned that the Kremlin’s interference in U.S. elections reflected “a sophisticated effort to polarize democratic societies and pit communities within those societies against each other.” There are “initial signs of it in the Mexican presidential campaign already,” he added.
How then should the United States and other concerned parties respond? A useful starting point could be to leverage the working group established by the Organization of American States in April 2017 to focus on cooperation and confidence-building measures in cyberspace. Many of the discussions surrounding these topics have focused on armed conflict and the applicability of international law. However, some experts in Latin America have questioned whether this discussion centered on the United States, Russia and China is particularly relevant to their region and see other issues as higher priorities. This working group could be a useful vehicle to raise awareness, share lessons learned and advance best practices with regard to election interference using information and communications technologies that pose a more immediate risk to Latin America than the prospect of interstate conflict.
In addition, the United States should be proactive in working bilaterally with partners in the region to improve the resilience of their information infrastructure and electoral processes. Protecting liberal democracies and stability in the Western Hemisphere is clearly in the U.S. national interest. Such an effort will require a whole-of-government approach leveraging the expertise and relationships of several U.S. agencies and would ideally be coordinated by the director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council. European governments can also contribute to improving resilience in Latin America through both bilateral relations and the European Union’s regional engagements. These intergovernmental efforts should be complemented by a concerted effort to support greater transnational cooperation among civil society organizations on this issue specifically.
Even if projections regarding Russia’s ambitions prove inaccurate, this concerted effort to improve the resilience of Latin American countries would produce positive effects. For example, the presciently titled article “How to Hack an Election,” published by Bloomberg seven months before the U.S. elections, profiles the hacker Andrés Sepúlveda, who claims to have interfered in Latin American elections during the past decade using his hacking and social media skills (and is in a Colombian jail for this reason). According to Sepúlveda, his targets included presidential elections in Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama and Venezuela. At the end of the day, Russia’s interference in the U.S. elections in 2016 was a wake-up call regarding not only external interference with states’ political systems but also for how internal actors can use modern technology for the same purposes. Collaboration to protect elections will make Latin American political systems more resilient against both outside interference from the Kremlin and interference from domestic and regional actors.
Whatever the motivation behind Russian interference in U.S. elections, the past is no predictor of future targets of attack. If there is a single lesson to be learned from the major cyber incidents of the past decade, it is that a collective failure of imagination can blind people and governments to what incidents might happen next and how they should shape policy discussions. For Latin America, it is not too late to be safe rather than sorry. The United States and European Union can help by developing a systematic effort to share their lessons learned and best practices to better protect liberal democracies throughout the region.