While news continues to dribble out from the multiple investigations into Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, some in Washington have projected their fears toward the south. On May 27, Colombians will cast their votes in a historic presidential election—the first since a peace agreement ended the government’s 54-year-long war with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. But the elections have been accompanied by renewed fears among U.S. policymakers of Russian interference. After returning from his first (and last) Latin American tour in January 2018, then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned Latin American leaders that he had seen indications of “Russia’s fingerprints” around the Western Hemisphere. Former U.S. Undersecretary of Defense Frank Mora issued similar warnings specifically to Colombia. Most recently in late April 2018, a bipartisan group in the House of Representatives filed a resolution calling on Russia to stay out of Latin America’s elections. But projecting the idea of Russia as the gravest threat to the elections in Colombia would be a mistake. While we cannot rule out the possibility of Russian interference in Colombia’s election, three domestic factors—electoral fraud, violence, and declining trust in politics—will be bigger determinants in the election and pose a greater threat to Colombian democracy. Perhaps spooked by Russian cyber-attacks on the Democratic National Convention during the U.S. presidential election, both U.S. and Colombian observers have pointed out the vulnerability of the country’s electoral infrastructure to foreign hackers. In the run up to Colombia’s congressional elections in early March 2018, Minister of Defense Luis Carlos Villegas admitted that Colombian intelligence had registered thousands of attempted attacks on the voter registry system, some of which had originated from Venezuela, a country considered by experts to be Russia’s launching pad for attacks in Latin America. But experience from the congressional election in Colombia indicates that the real threat to the electoral infrastructure is internal. The Fundación Paz y Reconciliación, a Bogotá-based think tank, filed a report just weeks before the presidential vote alleging that employees of the national registry of voters were paid off to commit widespread fraud in order to sway the outcome of tight congressional races. Manipulation of vote totals within the registry may have determined the result of 10 to 20 percent of the seats won in the March elections. Meanwhile, it seems some candidates opted for a different approach to electoral manipulation—targeting the voters themselves. The Supreme Court of Colombia is currently investigating senator-elect Aída Merlano’s campaign after authorities in her coastal city of Barranquilla uncovered a sophisticated scheme to buy-off voters. The Colombian government will allow international experts from the Organization of American States and U.S. NGOs to monitor the presidential elections, hopefully limiting opportunities for fraud and voter manipulation. However, corruption is not the only threat to the upcoming election. Voters and candidates in Colombia also face physical security threats that could undermine the electoral process. The government’s 2016 peace agreement with the FARC has made the country’s elections significantly safer and political participation increased in March’s congressional elections, with over 3.6 million more voters compared to 2014. But that doesn’t mean that all is well. According to the country’s Electoral Observation Mission, voters in municipalities in almost half of Colombia’s 36 departments (states) are at risk of attack or intimidation by armed groups. Presidential candidates signed a pact to condemn electoral violence, but polarizing campaign rhetoric has led, unsurprisingly, to threats against the physical security of some candidates. Earlier this month Colombian intelligence uncovered a plan to bomb the headquarters of the presidential front-runner, Iván Duque. In March, protesters attacked a car carrying second-place candidate, left-leaning populist Gustavo Petro, cracking the bulletproof windows. Colombia’s issues with electoral fraud and violence do little to reassure voters who may question the value of democracy in general. According to polling conducted last year by AmericasBarometer, just over 50 percent of Colombians believe that democracy is the best form of governance. This has a marked impact in how citizens view elections. Experts warn that Russia seeks to manipulate elections by sowing distrust in the democratic process, rather than picking a particular candidate. However, only a small percentage of Colombians—around 25 percent—trust the outcomes of their country’s elections anyway. Meanwhile, one third of Colombians said that they would support a military coup to solve their country’s problems rampant corruption and insecurity. Given these domestic challenges to the election, the United States would do better to focus on long-term programs that would strengthen democracy and governance rather than concentrate on perceived threats from Russia. Ironically, these programs may be the best answer the Russian threat in the region; Russia specifically targets weak democracies where its efforts to sow contempt for liberal democracy are most likely to take root. For the United States, the best defense against Russian interference in the Western Hemisphere is to ensure solid democratic institutions in Latin America are built and maintained, from the inside out. About the author: Jamie Shenk is a doctoral student in Sociology and a Clarendon scholar at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on social conflict and the extractive industries in post-conflict Colombia. She previously worked at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars' Latin American Program and Synergy Global Consulting. She graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University with a BA in History. Photo credit: Casa de Nariño (Colombian Presidential Palace)
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.