China and Russia have stepped up their cyber presence in Latin America, while employing cyber tools, including disinformation, cybercrime, and electoral interference to pursue their goals in the region, experts said. Disinformation campaigns through state-owned Spanish-language social media platforms, cyberattacks, such as those the Russian Conti ransomware group perpetrated against Costa Rican and Peruvian government agencies in recent months, and the transfer of cybersecurity know-how and infrastructure, are some examples of their increasing cyber operations.
Venezuela is a case in point, the U.S. magazine The National Interest says, while describing the country as a “Chinese and Russian cyber hub on America’s doorstep.” For instance, the authoritarian regime’s interests in China’s national identity card system goes back to 2008, when then socialist leader Hugo Chávez began to hatch plans to emulate the Chinese technology and its tracking and surveillance abilities. In 2016, three years after Chávez’s death, the Nicolás Maduro regime unveiled the Carnet de la Patria, the Homeland Card, Chinese-style ID cards.
Chinese telecom company ZTE Corporation, contracted by Venezuela at a cost of about $70 million, sent experts to the Latin American country to develop and implement the technology. “There is growing evidence that the [Venezuelan] regime is using the Carnet de la Patria to exercise control over the population. For example, numerous testimonies say that the Carnet de la Patria was used to verify citizens’ votes in the 2017 and 2018 elections,” the Organization of American States said in a report on the Venezuelan migrant and refugee crisis in the region.
Russia also brought its cybersecurity know-how to the Maduro regime, The National Interest says. In March 2019, some 100 Russian military troops, including cybersecurity personnel, deployed to Venezuela allegedly to help restore the country’s power grid following massive blackouts that the regime blamed on cyberattacks, Reuters reported. The presence of the cybersecurity personnel, however, strongly suggested that their mission could have been to help the regime with surveillance and protection of its cyber infrastructure.
Attempt at global projection
If China and Russia are exporting their cyber know-how to Latin America, with it comes their vision of the internet, the Council on Foreign Relations, a U.S. think tank specializing in international relations, said in a blog addressing ZTE’s export to Venezuela of its surveillance technology.
“Exporting surveillance technology (and know-how) to other countries is a way to reinforce the sovereign and controlled vision of the internet,” Justin Sherman, a cybersecurity policy fellow at the think tank New America wrote.
Chinese and Russian cyber know-how on Latin American soil, the National Interest further states, is a menace to the United States and the region, as well as a global threat. In late 2019, for instance, then Colombian Vice President Marta Lucía Ramírez accused Russia and Venezuela of fomenting protests through social media campaigns, the New York Times reported. In 2017, it was found during the Catalan separatist crisis in Spain that a vast quantity of foreign social media content meant to heighten division was in fact the result of Russian disinformation coming from Venezuela, the U.S. news site The Daily Beast reported.
“There are indications that Venezuela has grown closer not only to China, but to other countries like Russia, Iran, and Syria over the last two decades, both in the field of commercial, economic, and political cooperation, and in the field of cyber security,” Roberto Uebel, a Brazilian associate researcher at the South American Institute of Politics and Strategy and professor of International Relations at the School of Advertising and Marketing in Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul state, told Diálogo.
For Uebel, this has to do with what he calls “cyber geopolitics, that is, geopolitics of the virtual space,” which means that today, when there is some kind of cooperation between countries, it is quite likely that this cooperation includes the cyber field, because this is a concern for all countries, the professor said. “The U.N. secretary-general himself at the General Assembly in September last year  said that the next major international conflict will occur from a hacker attack,” Uebel concluded.