Note: This article is a revised and shortened version of a conference paper presented at LASA 2018. It has been translated from Spanish.
Globally, Russia is considered the main propagator of authoritarianism of the 21st century, while in Latin America the banner has been taken up by Venezuela. 21st century authoritarianism invokes sovereignty to reject international criticism of the persecution of political opposition and the suffocation of civil society. Authoritarian leaders affirm that the application of universal norms of human rights or the judgments of supranational judicial organ constitute undue interference and violence of national sovereignty.
In the first two decades of the century, several countries with authoritarian populist leaders—Venezuela, Nicaragua, Bolivia, Ecuador, Russia and Belarus—adjusted their constitutions to minimize, eliminate or evade the limits of executive mandates. At the same time, these leaders undermined the autonomy of the judiciary, electoral bodies and sub-national governments. In these regimes, control of the media and information, as well as restrictions on the ability of civil society, are instrumental in limiting pluralism. Under these conditions, an unbalanced playing field is created to make it difficult for the opposition to genuinely compete, paving the way for increasingly authoritarian regimes.
Diffusers of 21st century authoritarianism
Russia has taken a dominant role in the propagation processes in the new wave of authoritarianism, with the use of coercion mechanisms derived from its military power and geopolitical leadership. Under Vladimir Putin, the Russian government has used the judiciary as an instrument of political harassment, adopted laws designed to dismember civil society, taken control of the media, and developed propaganda techniques adapted to the digital age. Under Moscow’s influence, other emerging autocracies have adopted the Russian-Putin model.
Venezuela has also had outsize influence in shaping political developments in Latin America. The material basis of this influence has been the financial flows derived from oil income that allowed the financing of ideologically sympathetic regimes throughout the region. Venezuelan oil income financed leftist candidates including Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (Argentina), Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (Mexico), Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Ollanta Humala (Peru), José Mujica (Uruguay) and Daniel Ortega (Nicaragua), as well as the São Paulo Forum, which was founded by the Brazilian Workers Party (PT) in 1990. Caracas also used oil income to finance Petro-Caribe and Petro-Sur and establish the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).
The leaders of the “pink tide” learned from Chávez and emulated his policies. Evo Morales and Rafael Correa learned about Chávez’s strategies to effect regime change. They emulated his autocratic plans in numerous ways: convening constituent assemblies to “re-found” their nations; calling for frequent elections to displace the previous elites and consolidate hegemony; and passing discriminatory laws to silence the public, attack and limit civil society and harass the opposition.
A shared affiliation with ALBA gave the presidents of the “pink tide” and their inner circle the opportunity to meet and exchange information regularly. Between 2004 and 2015, the presidents of ALBA met for 16 separate summits, not to mention the frequent exchanges between the political, economic, social, and social movements councils within ALBA.
Since 2008, when then-Russian President Dimitry Medvedev participated in the ALBA conference, Russia has had close relations with like-minded Latin American countries. After the conference, presidents Hugo Chávez, Daniel Ortega, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa traveled to Moscow. Since then, senior Russian officials have been routinely invited to ministerial meetings within the ALBA framework.
Another channel for the exchange of the public policy tools of 21st century authoritarianism has been the sharing of political advisors and communication consultants. This is best highlighted by the group of Spanish political advisors who have worked for the Chávez, Correa and Morales governments. In 2014, these advisors went on to found the leftist populist party Podemos in Spain, which is clearly ideologically influenced by Bolivarianism.
The internal enemy: Civil society
According to the annual Freedom House Freedom in the World report, the ability of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and other civil society institutions to function without state restrictions has suffered a sharp decline in the last decade. The biggest setbacks have been concentrated in authoritarian countries such as Russia, China, Venezuela and Iran.
Twenty-first century autocrats have classified civil society organizations as internal enemies, beginning in 2004, partly as a reaction to the Orange Revolution in Ukraine. However, the antecedents of open antagonism between authoritarians and organized civil society can be traced back to the overthrow of Slobodan Milosevic in Yugoslavia in October 2000. Even further back, civil society played a prominent role in the events that led to the fall of Soviet hegemony in Eastern Europe, best exemplified by Solidarsnoc, the Polish union whose membership reached 9.5 million members, one third of the Polish adult population.
The propaganda of 21st century authoritarian regimes underscores their fear of the subversive nature of civil society organizations, reinforcing the idea that the country is threatened by foreign infiltration. The sectors most heavily criminalized by authoritarian propaganda are student movements and human rights defense organizations, which paradoxically tend to promote forms of nonviolent protest and civil resistance. Between 2010 and 2015, more than 50 countries established restrictions on the operation and financing of non-governmental organizations, appealing to the argument of protecting sovereignty against foreign interference.
In 2007, Chávez declared freeing Venezuela from the subjection to civil society as a central objection of the Bolivarian Revolution. In 2010, Venezuela was one of the first countries in the world to enact legislation against civil society organizations: The Law for the Defense of Political Sovereignty and National Self-Determination, which prohibited NGOs that defend political rights or monitor the performance of public agencies receiving international assistance. In 2012, Russia passed similar legislation that required NGOs to enter a registry of “foreign agents.” In 2013, the government of Rafael Correa in Ecuador promulgated a decree granting powers to sanction NGOs for deviating from the objectives for which they were constituted, for engaging in politics and for interfering with public policies in contravention of internal or external security or peace. Bolivia followed a similar path in 2013, when it passed a law to revoke the permission to operate civil organizations if the representative of the organization is sanctioned for carrying out activities that undermine security or public order.
Hegemony over communication
The communicational-control model adopted by 21st century authoritarians includes the co-optation of private media. As in the Kirchners’ Argentina, funds are directed from the government (through subsidies and advertising guidelines) to sympathetic media. At the same time, independent and critical media face various forms of intimidation, including control over supplies of paper and selective application of tax legislation.
In Russia, the establishment of media control began by co-opting the directives of national television stations. In 2003, Putin reorganized state media and established stricter political control over state-owned television stations, put some private media under indirect state control and ensured that most private media fell under the control of loyal businessmen.
Under the neo-authoritarian communication control model, it is common to establish restrictions on the practice of journalism, including legislation that restricts access to information, creates protections for state secrets, establishes norms against vilification of officials, and creates strict libel laws. One of the best examples is the RESORTE law in Venezuela (2004) and the Organic Communication Law in Ecuador (2013). The noose of anti-expression laws serves to remind journalists that there can be very high costs for critical expression, which promotes self-censorship.
Likewise, authoritarian efforts to control communication attempt to restrict the diffusion of foreign media within national borders. Satellite television and the internet often face financial, technological and legal obstacles to limit their impact on public opinion. Foreign ownership of media is often limited and controlled. At the same time, authoritarians develop their own means for international dissemination of information, as is the case with RT in Russia and Telesur in Venezuela, both of which were founded in 2005. These media have three main functions: bolstering the international leadership and achievements of the neo-authoritarian regime; attacking values of liberal democracy; and exaggerating the social problems in the United States and Western Europe while at the same time avoiding coverage of domestic problems.
During elections, the media offer extensive positive coverage to government candidates, while the opposition faces a combination of efforts to close off their access to the media while simultaneously attacking them directly in the media. Although independent coverage of issues that the government considers politically unimportant is allowed, in difficult situations restrictions may be established on the dissemination of information about natural disasters, major accidents, epidemics, humanitarian crises, and corruption cases.
In 21st century autocracies, propaganda emphasizes imaginary wars fostered from abroad and the role of traitorous democratic politicians, as well as activists who defend human rights. Dissenting opinions are invariably subject to incessant attack and ridicule. Dissidents face a form of character assassination in which their views are twisted to make them appear foolish, radical, unpatriotic or immoral. The use of government media to conduct campaigns of aggression against the opposition and the values of liberal democracy has been common in both Russia and Venezuela in the last decade.
In Venezuela, control of information has been called communicational hegemony, a term that began to be to be used after the April 2002 coup, when the system of governmental and the financing para-governmental media began to expand. As of 2007, in a series of speeches related to the closure of RCTV, Chávez declared that as part of the process of building the new Bolivarian hegemony, it was necessary to free Venezuela from the institution of communication media associated with civil society and the oligarchy. Major milestones of these efforts include the nationalization of CANTV and the closure of RCTV, and, in 2009, the censure of radio stations. The communicational hegemony was consolidated in 2014, when the Globovisión news channel fell under the control of Chávez-friendly businessmen, and the government forced the sale of several newspapers, including Últimas Noticias, Noti-Tarde, and El Universal.
The Chávez/Maduro regime’s strategy of communicational hegemony has been replicated throughout the region. In Ecuador, Correa created a governmental media conglomerate that includes television stations, newspapers, radio stations and digital media. The Ecuadoran Public Television Project was designed in concert with Venezuelan experts and funded in part by BANDES de Venezuela.
Second generation internet controls and information war
Twenty first century authoritarian governments perceive a free and open internet as a threat to sovereignty. Russian internet policy is based on the premise that the network is used by the United States to overthrow governments in countries where the opposition is too weak to generate political changes and requires the autonomous mobilization of citizens, as happened in the “color revolutions.” In the case of Russia, the Duma recently approved Runet, scheduled to come into force at the end of 2019 to control the internet. The nearly identical Constitution Law of Cybserpace of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is currently being considered by the Maduro-created and controlled Venezuelan constituent assembly.
While traditional dictatorships, such as Cuba, prevented the widespread use of the internet for fear that online communications would pose a threat to the state’s monopoly on information, 21st century autocrats have devised specific techniques to put the Internet under political control without closing it completely. The neo-authoritarian model focuses on restricting activities or content that may contribute to expanding online protest or mobilizing citizens for collective action. The adoption of second-generation internet control mechanisms began in Russia in 2011 following the Arab Spring and in Venezuela after 2009 after the #IranElection movement. Additionally, this model promotes attacks against pro-democracy activists: The interception of emails from journalists and opposition activists has been a tactic widely used by both the Russian and Venezuelan governments since 2011.
Finally, 21st century authoritarian regimes deploy armies of trolls and bots to flood social media platforms with pro-government comments, influence online discussions, attack critics of the government, and publish disinformation. Russian and Iranian political bots surfaced on Twitter in 2011. In Latin America, Venezuela pioneered the use of bots as early as 2010. Subsequently, from 2012, similar tactics were observed in other countries in the region, including Mexico, Argentina and Ecuador. The purpose of disinformation strategies is basically to contaminate the climate of discussion, generating an informational chaos that can inhibit public debate and hinder the organization of pro-democratization political mobilizations.
With a new wave of authoritarianism ascendant both in Latin America and globally, aspiring strong-men increasingly look to Russia and Venezuela for both inspiration and for practical techniques for expanding power and stifling dissent.
Iria Puyosa is a Visiting Professor at Universidad Andina Simón Bolívar Ecuador in Quito. She has a Ph.D. in Higher Education and Public Policy from the University of Michigan.