Russia Trying To Exploit American Divisions On Venezuela, Experts Say

Mar 7, 2019

Russia is using propaganda to exploit American divisions on the turmoil in Venezuela in the same way it has on issues like race relations and gun control, according to foreign policy experts and Florida International University professors.

Jamie Fly, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan public policy think tank the German Marshall Fund of the United States, said the efforts align with Russia’s support for the Maduro regime and ongoing strategy to manipulate American opinion.

As the Trump administration continues to dangle military intervention as an option to oust Venezuela's embattled President Nicolás Maduro, Russia is using disinformation and social media to persuade Americans to oppose U.S. interference.

“There’s an almost daily effort to push a narrative that this is a hearkening back to an imperialist policy that always fails, that leads to potential military intervention, which does not help Venezuela, which also bogs the U.S. down,” Fly said during a discussion at FIU on Russia’s continuing disinformation operations since the 2016 election.

Russia has propped up the Maduro regime financially with loans and bailouts over the past decade. It has been warning the U.S. against military interference.

The American debate over a potential U.S. intervention has escalated as Maduro clings to power and the country’s humanitarian crisis worsens. Hyperinflation has led to dire shortages of food and medical supplies and forced millions to flee. The Maduro regime has also recently cracked down on journalists, releasing a U.S. freelance reporter on Wednesday after holding him in custody for about 12 hours.  

While the Trump administration has prioritized sanctions against the regime and recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim president, Trump continues to say an intervention is “on the table.” The president's national security advisor, John Bolton, repeated the refrain Wednesday night on Twitter. 

Progressives and many Democratic members of Congress oppose intervention. They cite past U.S. coups in Latin America that they say have only destabilized the region.

Fly said Russia is now exploiting the debate to help support Maduro. Social media posts and video reports are warning against the dangers of intervening and also spreading disinformation about the state of Venezuela’s economy and the quality of Venezuelan life. Fly said the goal could be to make "the U.S. at the end of the day more cautious about getting involved" and encourage the country to "dial back its support for the interim president." 

Fly and Laura Rosenberger, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, added the strategy underscores Russian efforts to influence American public opinion through disinformation operations and cyberattacks. It is also an example of Russia and China’s growing presence in Latin America.

China has become a major export destination for several countries, while Russia has gained leverage through arms sales across the region. During the hour-long discussion on Thursday, FIU political science professor Eduardo Gamarra said China and Russia are also increasingly trying to influence elections in Latin America. 

“They’ve figured that they can finance polls, they can finance advertising, they can finance consultants and they can also finance political parties,” Gamarra said.

Panelists on Thursday debated how to address such intrusion in democracies across the world by authoritarian governments. Among their suggestions: correcting misinformation and building resilience through better media literacy.

“We need to find new ways to empower consumers of information to better understand and think critically about it,” Rosenberger said.