Image: Russian President appears on Actualidad RT justifying COVID-19 restrictions in April 2020. Source: .
Misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda are important weapons for any country seeking to win friends and gain allies. This paradigm is certainly Russia’s case following its invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. While much of the global narrative has gone against Russia, Moscow’s side of the story is finding an audience in Latin America, which should give U.S. policymakers cause for concern.
Russia’s approach to Latin America is through “smart power,” which encompasses the goals of distorting facts to support a particular narrative, limiting free expression, and spreading confusion—usually in democracies where the media is free. As the Journal of Democracy notes on smart power, “This approach takes advantage of the asymmetry between free and unfree systems, allowing authoritarian regimes both to limit free expression and to distort political environments in democracies while simultaneously shielding their own domestic public spaces from democratic appeals coming from abroad.”
Russia’s media work in Latin America has its roots in its 2009 creation of the Spanish-language offshoots of Russia Today (RT), Actualidad RT or RT en Espanol. The media (propaganda) company, owned by the Russian government, has more than 18 million followers on Facebook and almost six million subscribers on YouTube. RT spread due to the willingness of a number of high-profile Latin American leaders to lend it credibility. Among such leaders was Rafael Correa, one of Ecuador’s more U.S.-skeptic presidents, who hosted a political talk show for the network in 2018 (after he left office). RT also gained more followers in 2018, when Russia hosted the World Cup.
As the government of President Vladimir Putin increasingly adopted a more hostile stance vis-à-vis the West (which became more pronounced in the 2010s), Moscow revved up its propaganda effort in Latin America—particularly in countries open to Russian friendship, like Argentina and Venezuela. At the same time, it was actively promoting misinformation and disinformation in some of the more pro-U.S. countries in the region, like Chile and Colombia, to stir up tensions. As the Global Americans study on misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda in Latin America observed, “Russia lacks the means to properly court deeper commercial opportunities so its disinformation strategy is focused on disrupting social order and political stability at a national level.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, Russian efforts also positively portrayed its vaccine, Sputnik V, while its disinformation operations sought to tarnish U.S. and European vaccines.
For Russia, the war with its neighbor is not going as planned. Moscow expected a quick victory in which Ukrainians would welcome Russian troops, a knock-out blow would take Kyiv, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy would flee to Poland, and the West would begrudgingly accept the action (as it did with Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014). Instead, the Ukrainians resisted fiercely, President Zelenskyy galvanized his country, and the West piled on sanctions against Russia and provided Ukraine offensive military equipment. Russia further stumbled when the international community learned Russian soldiers massacred Ukrainian citizens in Bucha.
War is messy, and consequently, the Russo-Ukrainian War has required Russia to devise a new set of propaganda lines. These include portraying Ukraine as a neo-Nazi client state of NATO, saying the U.S. is using Ukraine as a place for biological warfare experiments, asserting Ukrainian forces have been conducting a genocide of ethnic Russians in Donbas (a largely ethnically Russian part of Ukraine), and describing Ukrainian leadership as drug addicts.
Russia’s need to avoid complete economic and diplomatic isolation directs its narrative in Latin America. Equally important, Russia wants to portray the United States as the real threat to the world and that there is a pressing need to, in the words of President Putin, “breaking the unipolar world system that was created after the collapse of the Soviet Union.” Are these messages reaching Spanish-language listeners? As the Associated Press (AP) observed in early April 2022, “Though many of the claims have been discredited, they’re spreading widely in Latin America and helping make Kremlin-controlled outlets some of the top Spanish-language sources for information about the war. Russian outlet RT en Espanol is now the third most shared site on Twitter for Spanish-language information about Russia.”
Russia can also take consolation in the mixed response from Latin American leaders to the war and the lack of a region-wide adherence to Western-led sanctions. Moreover, Latin American votes at the United Nations also indicated that the door to Russia is not entirely closed. In the April vote to suspend Russia from the UN’s Human Rights Council, which passed with 93 votes out of a total of 193 members, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Bolivia voted against the measure (along with 21 other countries), while Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador, Barbados, Belize, and Guyana abstained (along with 54 others). Among those voting for Russia’s suspension were Argentina, Antigua and Barbuda, Chile, Colombia, Grenada, Ecuador, and Peru.
Russia maintains a voice in Latin America. Unlike in Europe and the United States, RT is still not banned or marked as government propaganda in much of Latin America. Due to the region’s residual suspicion of U.S. foreign policy and a degree of Cold War ideological ties among the Latin American left, RT has found fertile ground to cultivate its audience. The information RT broadcasts travels through social media and messaging apps via likes and reposts by misinformed and malevolent actors, such as trolls or cyber troops.
And RT has been at this for years. Jacobo Licona, a researcher at Equis Labs, noted, “There’s different avenues where RT is actively engaging communities across Latin America and the United States. That’s part of the reason RT has been so effective, they’ve been building this network or community ahead of time.”
Russia also benefits from having allies in the region. For its part, Cuba has demonstrated its loyalty to Russia as it has mimicked Moscow’s narrative of the war. For example, when Cuban media reported on the Bucha Massacre they called it a “fabricated lie that, because it has been repeated so much, regrettably poisons the international community against Russia.” Likewise, Venezuela’s state-owned media, TeleSur, adamantly argued that the West and UN were ignoring “monstrous torture and cruel executions of Russian prisoners of war by the Ukrainian army” and that “Washington’s role in Ukraine jeopardizes world stability.”
But not everything is going Russia’s way. While the Cuban government is willing to parrot Moscow, the Miami Herald has reported that many Cubans have rejected the war on social media and sent messages to the Ukrainian Embassy in Havana.
A March vote at the UN’s General Assembly to denounce Russia’s “aggression” in Ukraine was carried by 141 votes, with only five nays (Belarus, North Korea, Eritrea, Russia, and Syria) and 35 abstentions (including China, Cuba, Brazil, Mexico, and Nicaragua). Most of Latin America and the Caribbean voted in favor of condemning Russian aggression.
The battle for Latin American and Caribbean hearts and minds is likely to intensify. As Guy Mentel, the executive director of Global Americans, noted, “The Russian disinformation machine functions best in highly polarized societies.”
For U.S. policymakers, Brazil and Colombia are two countries to watch. Both have upcoming elections where left-wing candidates stand a reasonable chance of winning. Colombia goes to the polls on May 29, 2022, and Brazil on October 2, 2022. A Colombian shift to a leftist president could make that country a less dependable U.S. ally, something that would benefit Russia (and, for that matter, the other major authoritarian power competing with Washington in the region, China).
Another significant challenge ahead for the Russian propaganda machine is how to escape blame for the war’s economic consequences. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) notes, “The war in Ukraine is shaking the global economy and raising uncertainty about the outlook for Latin America and the Caribbean. The impact is being felt in Latin America through higher inflation that is affecting real incomes, especially the most vulnerable…But there are other risks looming. A possible escalation of the war could eventually lead to global financial distress and tighter financial conditions for the region.”
Peru has already experienced riots—sparked by higher oil prices. In Peru, March inflation figures represented the highest levels in 22 years, with food and fuel prices up 9.5 percent since last year. Peru voted against Russia at the UN, and as the country’s economy are likely to feel the pain of a long Russo-Ukrainian war, there are serious questions about how Russia will spin Peru’s dire economic situation.
Misinformation, disinformation, and propaganda remain on the menu for Russia and its relationship with Latin America. Russia’s war on Ukraine has only made this more of a concern. Moscow’s distorted narrative showcases how an authoritarian regime with little regard for a rules-based international system tries to get away with murder. The West needs stronger efforts to counter Russian disinformation. The battle for hearts and minds continues, but it has a much sharper geopolitical edge than before the Russo-Ukraine War, and the stakes are higher.
Scott B. MacDonald is the chief economist at Smith’s Research & Gradings, Research Fellow at Global Americans, and founding director of the Caribbean Policy Consortium. His latest book, The New Cold War, China and the Caribbean, is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan.
 The UN April 2022 vote also included 18 no-shows, including Venezuela.
 In March 2022, RT was banned and restricted by a number of major companies, including Microsoft, Meta, YouTube, and TikTok (in Europe). Twitter and Google limited RT content globally. DirecTV dumped RT America and Spotify removed all RT content as well as content from the Russian news agency Sputnik. The EU banned RT throughout its borders.