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How China and Russia Will Continue to Exploit Weak Democratic Institutions Across the Hemisphere

How China and Russia Will Continue to Exploit Weak Democratic Institutions Across the Hemisphere

By Laura Boyette-Álvarez, Senior Program Manager for Latin America and the Caribbean at the International Republican Institute
January 04, 2021

From the economic downturn forecasted by economists to the ongoing migration crisis of Venezuelan refugees and the wave of protests as citizens react to electoral fraud, grand corruption, and crippling austerity measures, the trends currently underway across our hemisphere indicate a period of challenges for democracies ahead. Recent polls from Vanderbilt University’s AmericasBarometer, and other metrics used to measure the health of democratic institutions, paint a troubling picture as well. Based on all we know about Chinese and Russian strategies in the region, we can expect both countries to step up their game to exploit these challenges.

The declining support for democracy among Latin American citizens, which AmericasBarometer describes, is likely due to several factors. Democracies throughout the region are relatively young, and they face significant challenges: political elite out of touch with the reality of how citizens live, massive grand corruption, transnational narcotraffickers co-opting state services in neglected areas (and essentially becoming the state), and migration crises across the hemisphere.

Citizens are fed up and governments too often look for easy and inexpensive solutions to their problems. All this creates fertile soil for external malign actors — often with their own interests in mind — to operate inside these countries. Both China and Russia are exploiting these challenges with increasingly sophisticated means.

The hemisphere’s three greatest vulnerabilities to the malign influence of Russian and Chinese’s soft power are related to failed economic development policies of the past, incomplete decentralization of government power, and anti-democratic regimes’ reliance on foreign actors to control their populations.

Pressure to guarantee endless economic growth

An 87-year-old veteran of the first Sandino rebellion, armed with a double-barreled shotgun, stands with an 18-year- old Sandinista guerrilla holding an assault rifle in Leon, Nicaragua, June 19, 1979. Russia’s ties to Nicaragua’s Sandinistas date back to the 1970s. (Photo: Associated Press)

Latin American governments are under immense pressure from their citizens to continue the economic growth witnessed across the region in the last 20 years. Recent protests demonstrated that citizens have grown impatient with austerity measures meted out by traditional international lenders. China presents a quick fix without the pesky austerity requirements that often quickly lead to a leader’s ouster. Nevertheless, this shortsighted fix has several significant drawbacks — the terms of Chinese loans are rarely debated publicly or even disclosed to the public. A common practice for resource-rich countries is for repayment to be determined through commodities and resources, rather than a set amount. Signing away a country’s future economic returns should certainly be debated in public.

Incomplete decentralization exacerbates lack of resources and oversight

The incomplete decentralization process throughout Latin America has created several situations around the region where subnational governments have turned to China for infrastructure investment and for technology, particularly in the area of telecommunications and security surveillance.

Countries across the hemisphere have relied on Chinese telecommunications companies to outfit municipalities with new surveillance systems to better monitor crime. In reality, the success of such systems is largely dependent on the manpower available to make full use of them. A jurisdiction may have the latest system, but if there isn’t a budget to train staff to use them or even to allocate time to monitor the information, the system is useless. Nations should also be wary of potential backdoors that such surveillance systems may leave open for hackers or espionage. Lastly, nations must weigh the benefit of such systems to potentially mitigate the impact of organized crime on the fundamental freedoms of their citizens, as these systems can easily be abused to monitor and intimidate political opponents or dissidents.

Handy tools and alliances for authoritarian regimes

Authoritarian regimes throughout the region have continued to rely on China and Russia for the unsavory business of repressing the opposition. Russia’s ties to Nicaragua’s Sandinistas date back to the 1970s. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, since his 2006 reelection, has sought to strengthen his relationship with the Russian government and military — allowing their warships to dock at Nicaraguan ports, importing Russian tanks, aircraft, and mobile rocket-launchers. Russia, for its part, donated a fleet of municipal buses and large shipments of agricultural aid, and is building a vaccine factory. Like Chinese investment in information systems and surveillance, Russia has also increased its intelligence and state security presence in Managua to train Nicaraguan police forces.

In late-2019, Ortega gifted the Russian government a large building in the capital to house their new embassy in the vicinity of a joint training center where Russian police train Nicaraguan counterparts on strategies to combat transnational crime and drug trafficking. Russia’s support, in terms of military and agricultural aid and security forces’ training, is a significant factor in the Ortega regime’s ability to remain in power and to continue to repress pro-democracy movements within the country.

Further south, Russia’s interest and involvement in the conflict in Venezuela has been heavily documented, and in 2019, the Kremlin took on an even more assertive role. Russia’s relationship with Venezuela bears many similarities to the one it cultivates with Cuba, involving efforts to repress calls for democracy. This involvement is indicative of Russia’s goals for the hemisphere: Aside from clearly being motivated to counterbalance U.S. influence around the world, supporting Nicolás Maduro is key to squashing grassroots movements to overthrow illiberal, corrupt, and undemocratic regimes that Moscow views as legitimate.

Support for these regimes, much like that of Nicaragua, comes in the form of military and surveillance, but also increased trade. Since 2013, Russian-Cuban trade has more than doubled while Russian-Venezuelan oil trade grew from 40 to 66 percent between July and August 2019, offering a key release valve amid U.S. sanctions.

Corruption: a common value

Underlying all these issues is a crosscutting theme of corruption and opacity. Deals involving China often harm the democratic and economic well-being of a country in the long term, if not immediately. In developing countries with relatively new democracies, including those with populist leaders, civil society is weak or repressed; the legal framework for access to information and transparency is either new and untested, absent, or completely ignored in practice; and the media space is weak (they are often ill-equipped to investigate or even self-censor out of fear of losing financing because of media monopolies).

At the same time, the authoritarian practices in countries such as Russia and China include opaque negotiations, state-owned enterprises that muddy the line between trade secrets and state security, and absolute control of information and decision-making, robbing citizens of oversight and input.

Therefore, it is imperative that U.S. support in the hemisphere be targeted to bolster democratic institutions with a particular emphasis on transparency through access to information laws, strong rule of law, and a culture of accountability through robust civil society.

Despite these challenges and the inevitable maneuvers of bad actors, the region’s future is not bleak. We can take hope from the social movements that were galvanized in 2019, which led to greater citizen involvement and oversight in elections, demands for transparency and accountability, and widespread hunger for greater inclusion and participation. By equipping our partners with the tools and information they need to counter negative foreign influence, we can help safeguard democratic institutions and support greater peace and security throughout the hemisphere.