Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggression in the Ukraine is only the more overt side of his imperialist playbook. A side effect is distraction from Russia’s propaganda campaign in Colombia, meant to destabilize one of the last and oldest truly functioning democracies in South America.
Armed with the relatively new weapons of social media and cyber-hacking technology, Russia has new and improved tools to support its imperialistic ambitions in Latin America. Through an especially nefarious kind of passive whataboutism they got the U.S. to punish and thus discredit Colombia, a long-time U.S. ally whose security from neighboring Venezuela and internal insurgency depends on U.S. support.
Since Russia successfully influenced the 2016 U.S. election, the Kremlin has had time to perfect its cyber-propaganda game. In 2020, the U.S. State Department concluded Russia was behind the fake Twitter accounts in South America meant to “sow confusion in nations opposed to Moscow-backed Venezuela.”
There is plenty of evidence to support that Russia was behind the disinformation that fueled the violent 2021 Colombia protests and will undoubtedly influence the upcoming Colombian presidential elections.
The 2021 protests in Colombia began in April as a strike against a pandemic-related tax measure that was quickly withdrawn by Colombian president Ivan Duque. The conflict continued with a wide variety of new complaints, lasting over three months and resulting in at least 45 fatalities, 850 wounded police and confiscation of more than 16,000 sharp weapons from protesters.
In May of 2021 Colombian Defense Minister Diego Molano confirmed cyberattacks on government servers and “movements from Russia over social media”. Examples include reports of the Exito supermarket in Cali described as “torture center where police brought protesters”. Despite the fact that the report was immediately refuted by authorities, it spread virulently, reinforcing even more anger and violence.
Videos edited from former protests were widely disseminated, creating the impression that the Colombian police were interfering with democracy by murdering peaceful protesters. Hundreds of people were incorrectly reported as missing.
The U.S. government and media took the bait. Citing videos of “aggressive, indiscriminate use of lethal and non-lethal weapons against its citizens”, 55 Democrats pressured the Biden administration into conditioning 30 percent of US Aid to Colombia’s security forces, pending investigations into human rights abuses. The measures were taken despite Colombia’s dependence on US security aid to mitigate increasing violence in rural areas and rearming of ex-FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) combatants and high-profile commanders.
In November 2021, US president Joe Biden removed FARC from the list of international terrorist groups, angering Colombian voters.
Through the U.S. media the narrative of a Pinochet-style dictatorship in Colombia reverberated throughout the world; in May 2021, The New York Times published the article: “Colombia Police respond to protests with bullets, and death toll mounts.”
According to Christine Balling, Senior Fellow of Latin American Affairs at the American Foreign Policy Council, the decision to defund the Colombian police was “unwarranted” and “dangerously misguided”. In an article for The Hill, Balling wrote that “foreign governments such as Venezuela and Cuba have been vocal supporters of the unrest, and promoted narratives that have helped to stoke the violence. As such, Bogota’s claims of foreign or terrorist involvement should be taken seriously.”
Among those benefitting from the damning accusations is the former M-19 guerrilla Gustavo Petro, frontrunner to win the upcoming Colombian presidential election. A known ally of Nicolás Maduro, Petro promised that if elected president he would restore relations between Venezuela and Colombia. The current leader of the Pacto Histórico coalition has repeatedly claimed that he may contest the final results of the 2022 elections if he does not win.
To be sure, allegations of police brutality should be thoroughly investigated. But six months later, the extensive Spanish language report by the U.N. Human Rights Office investigation, appears inconclusive. The language of proof is ambiguous. Out of 2414 videos analyzed, 83 were deemed authentic, from which all pertained to four incidents in the city of Cali. Out of sixty allegations of sexual violence in context of the protests, 16 were “presumably” committed by the National Police.
In a high-stakes election period, the optics of a cooling of U.S-Colombia relations empowers Colombia’s enemies. There is no way to predict whether Colombia under the control of a Maduro ally would go the way of Venezuela, now an economically battered dictatorship. But considering FARC dissidents and Marxist ELN guerrillas financed by drugs trafficking and with access to sophisticated weaponry from Venezuela control large swaths of Colombian countryside, they already have a foothold.
The Cold War-era paradigm of left vs. right is outdated in South America. Perhaps the better battle would be about truth vs. falsehood. Considering the stakes, it’s time to affirm U.S. decisive support of Colombia with a renewal of security aid and a taskforce using the same disinformation tools for the propagation of truth.
About the author: Kristina Foltz was a Rotary Ambassadorial scholar of Translation and Interpretation. Dividing her time between Bogotá and the U.S, she writes about Latin American politics. Follow her on Twitter@ twitter.com/kristinainsf2