As Russian forces intensify their wide-ranging attack on Ukraine, in Latin America, the Kremlin has been busy waging a different kind of assault on democracy — disinformation.
Just days before Colombians head to the polls to elect their representatives in Congress and less than three months before the first round of the presidential election, concerns about Russia’s attempts to manipulate the outcomes of the democratic process are rampant.
In late February, Julio Borges, former diplomatic representative for Venezuela’s Juan Guaidó, said in an interview with Colombian radio station Caracol that some 15 Russian agents were carrying espionage activities against Colombia from the Venezuelan border state of Apure. Russian agents “have the capacity to capture messages, carry out cyberattacks, and have radars to see the air traffic in Colombian territory,” Borges said.
In a February 24 opinion piece for the Miami Herald, Carlos Vecchio, Guaidó’s ambassador to the United States, highlighted the importance of Latin America for Russia, pointing to Vladimir Putin’s decision to arrange visits with the presidents of Brazil and Argentina and schedule phone calls with the dictators of Nicaragua, Venezuela, and Cuba amid his initial campaign against Ukraine.
“It’s a mistake to underestimate the potential for the Kremlin’s negative impact on our continent,” said Vecchio. “The Kremlin has proven to have a range of options to [destabilize the region], including espionage, cyberattacks, disinformation campaigns, military assistance, and even enable irregular channels to launder illicit financial assets […]. In this year’s presidential elections in Colombia, Russia and the Maduro dictatorship are seeking to add a new ally in their ongoing destabilization plan.”
That same day, as Russian troops launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Colombian President Iván Duque condemned the move in a televised speech and voiced his concern about foreign actors’ intervention during Colombia’s presidential election slated for May 29.
“There is global concern about cybersecurity, which must be addressed,” Duque said via Twitter. “Colombia has been taking actions for several years; we have increased protection mechanisms to face, in advance, any risk that may arise in the electoral process.”
On February 15, as he addressed members of the European Parliament, Duque insisted on the need to protect the upcoming elections from foreign interference. “We have to be able to reject any outside attempt to turn our electoral systems into an experiment by hackers trained to mobilize and incite hatred,” he said.
U.S. Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland, during a two-day visit to Bogotá, February 7-8, also outlined concerns from the White House that Colombia faced “risks by external actors and authoritarians” as well as “cybersecurity threats to propagate lies and stories that are not of Colombian origin.”
“The hemisphere must be not only on alert, [but also] actively defend the interests, security, and democracies of our people. We, Latin Americans, must reject Putin’s pretensions to use us as exchange tokens to satisfy his ambitions, since they never represent a benefit for the region […]. Otherwise the hemisphere peace, stability, and security will be in grave danger,” Vecchio said as he concluded his op-ed.