Hacking Latin American Democracy

The days when chavismo sought influence through oil spending and ideological appeals are over. But, amid a rash of elections this year, could Maduro still hack his way back to relevance?

You know how worried the U.S. is about the impact of “fake news” and Russian influence operations in their 2016 presidential election? Well, imagine one of these campaigns used to influence another country, with a far less sophisticated security apparatus, lots of political polarization and distrust of public institutions. Imagine six countries like that, holding presidential elections in the near future, all opposing, incidentally, the Maduro regime. Scared yet?

The Spanish government made public claims about hackers from Russia and “other countries” manipulating the Catalan referendum. Later it was revealed that “other countries” means Venezuela.

This is not the time to be scared. It’s time to be terrified.

Colombia, Brazil, Paraguay, Mexico, Costa Rica and Chile will all be holding presidential elections very soon. Placing a friendly government in power in any of these countries would be a tremendous victory for Maduro’s regime, and a quite possible event: after the Catalan non-referendum referendum, representatives from the Spanish government made public claims regarding hackers from Russia and “other countries” and their spread of fake news on social media. Later it was revealed that “other countries” means Venezuela. Foreign Minister Alfonso Dastis even claims there is irrefutable proof of Russian and Venezuelan hackers tried to influence the outcome of the crisis.

Now, this November, representatives from Honduras’ ruling party (the Partido Nacional) announced they had proof that the Venezuelan government tried to influence the outcomes of their presidential election. They even announced that, after a thorough investigation, 60% of the cyber-attacks they received came from Venezuela. Later on, Honduran congressman Juan Diego Zelaya told Fernando del Rincon that what they meant by “cyber-attacks” was a campaign to influence the election by spreading “fake news” on social media, discrediting the ruling party and its candidates.

The whole “fake news” buzz is a real thing, guys: the Brazilian Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV) published a study titled “Robots, Social Media and Politics in Brazil” and their findings are troubling. During the 2017 general strike, 20% of online interactions among those who favored it were initiated by bots. This represents an increase of 10% in bot activity compared to the 2014 election, continuing the trend of online support for president Dilma Rousseff in bot accounts. Sabrina Pasos, from Grupo RBS in Brazil, wrote a piece for the International News Media Association in which she referred to Fake News as “Democracy Hacking”.

Latin American governments have a terrible track record of underestimating threats.

You may be optimistic and recall the election of Luis Almagro and his role as Secretary General of the OAS, or Lenin Moreno’s triumph in Ecuador, with their staunch defense of democracy. Consider, however, the Honduran presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla’s interview, in which he said that the news about Venezuela were made up by the international media (and North Korea has a kickass economy, by the way).

Maybe these reports will serve as a wakeup call for Latin American governments to understand the threat “democracy hacking” poses. But the Venezuelan government will go to any lengths to ensure its subsistence and weaken its opponents, and Latin American governments have a terrible track record of underestimating threats.

We’re not in a firestorm, but we can see the clouds from here.

Pedro Garmendia

Pedro is a Penn State alumnus focusing in politics and philosophy. After a four year stint at the OAS, he now works in Washington D.C. analyzing political risk and geopolitics for private sector clients.