Category Archives: Politics

Venezuela’s Bad Neighborhood

The last few years in Latin American politics ushered in a wave of political upheavals from Chile to Honduras to Venezuela, and most recently Bolivia. Though the causes that sparked the manifestations differed across the hemisphere, Venezuelan involvement appears to be a common thread in the northern reaches of the continent. In a region that struggles to establish liberal democracies with fully-functioning economies, the socialist government in Caracas has an existential need to avoid isolation. It pursues this objective by destabilizing neighbors it views as ideological rivals and undermining the political opposition in socialist-leaning capitals. The governments of Ecuador and Colombia have both complained directly and repeatedly to the Maduro Administration about its meddling in political protests but their concerns have fallen on deaf ears. Despite crippling inflation and a contested political atmosphere, Caracas continues to see Latin America as a bad neighborhood to be managed.

Regional Problems

The complaints emanating from Colombia and Ecuador are a natural response to apparent Venezuelan meddling in their politics. During popular protests in Ecuador last month against suspension of fuel subsidies, President Lenin Moreno accused his predecessor, exiled former President Rafael Correa, of working with Venezuela to destabilize the Ecuadoran government. Specifically, Moreno accused Correa of “igniting” the protests using Venezuelan and Cuban agitators paid to fuel the protests. Indeed, many of those arrested were in fact, Venezuelan and Cuban, suggesting a more international conspiracy than a fuel-price hike would normally trigger. More ominously, the arrest of 17 Cuban and Venezuelan “spies” caught shadowing and photographing President Moreno’s convoy suggests those countries have a very high-risk tolerance for intervening in the affairs of their neighbors.

Colombia also has its concerns about Maduro’s political meddling. In an explosive speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September, Colombian president Iván Duque denounced Maduro for support to drug trafficking and transnational terrorism. In addition to having similar complaints about Venezuelan nationals sparking violence at protests, Duque was referring to the more sinister threat posed by thinly-veiled Venezuelan government support to ELN and dissident factions of FARC. According to documents leaked from the Bolivarian Intelligence Service (Sebín), and the Operational Strategic Command of the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (CEOFANB), there is a well-known and growing relationship between Venezuela’s armed forces and these groups. Among other things, the documents revealed the Venezuelan military supports the activities of Colombian guerillas it calls “red groups.” Trained by the military, these red groups can be directly integrated with ELN and FARC and can provide intelligence support to Venezuelan military planning for war with Colombia. One document addressed to the Sebín Director of Counterintelligence shows an ELN presence in nearly every state in Venezuela, a force the Colombian military believes to number 2000 guerillas.

Global Linkages Venezuela

Venezuelan meddling in the affairs of its neighbors is almost certainly not a new phenomenon. Maduro’s relationships with other irredentist regimes like Cuba, exacerbate the threat he presents to the region. His relationships with global powers Russia and China are a problem for the United States and therefore tied to issues of global imporance. The deployment of a People’s Liberation Army (Navy) hospital ship to Venezuela in early 2018 and Washington’s reaction to it illustrate this point. As troubling as a PLA(N) presence in the Caribbean may seem to the Pentagon however, Russia has far more robust economic and military interests in the stability of the Maduro regime.

Russian oil companies are a critical factor in preventing the slow collapse of productivity by Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA. Long the economic lifeline of the Maduro regime – and the Chavez regime before that – PDVSA’s decline, and Russia’s relationship with it, gives Moscow tremendous leverage over Maduro and his foreign policy. A Venezuela-friendly neighborhood is certainly good for Russia’s military sales program which had been at a low ebb after the April 2016 election of Pedro Pablo Kuczynski (PPK) in Peru and later Ivan Duque in Colombia. In PPK’s case, he set the conditions for corruption investigations associated with previous administrations’ purchase of Mikoyan fighter aircraft, Mil helicopters, and associated support packages. For his part, Duque demonstrated an early willingness to review the peace agreement with FARC, a move that threatened to reduce its influence and that of its Russian sponsor.

Hidden Hand

Apart from Venezuela, Moscow remains a primary supplier of hardware and expertise to Nicaragua and Cuba among others and uses those countries as enablers and staging areas for the conduct of active measures like those affecting Ecuador. According to a white paper released in May 2019,[1] “Russia seeks to undermine the consolidation of the region as a group of pro-U.S. states, and in the process, distract the U.S. and weaken its strategic position in the Western hemisphere.” Russia does this by propping up friendly regimes and manipulating the politics of others as part of its larger strategy.

As U.S. Senator Rick Scott said during an interview for Brazilian newspaper: Folha de S. Paulo, “Russia and China are in all Latin American countries, but not to help. They want to control.” In many ways, this is a replay of conditions seen during the Cold War when the Soviets used proxies to drive wedges between rival governments and indigenous or marginalized political groups. Many of those groups are still notoriously underserved by their governments and represent a tremendous potential for resistance. Venezuela, which exerts influence on all the countries around it, has both the political will to develop this potential and a well-developed capacity to do so. The ability to see Moscow’s hand behind Venezuela’s machinations however is not so clear. For its own reasons, the Maduro regime seems content acting as a Russian enabler in the region if not an outright proxy for Moscow’s interests. How long those roles remain unchanged in the face of Venezuela’s continuing decline is certainly something its neighbors will watch.


[1] Though this white paper, titled: “Russian Strategic Intentions”, is not an official publication of the U.S. Department of Defense, it is signed by the Deputy Commanding General of U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command and includes chapters written by numerous U.S. Military and Intelligence Community officers writing in their official capacity.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Overcoming Democracy: Italy’s Online Experiment

A political earthquake struck Italy this summer as alliances shifted between bitter rivals in the country’s complicated multiparty system. Power plays, miscalculations and surprise deals made for juicy media headlines, but the most important lesson for the world may lie in the way one particular populist party allows technocrats to substitute technological farce for representative democracy. Though the crisis for government control made global headlines, the internal dynamics are somewhat difficult for outsiders to understand. In his 2015 book The Italians, author John Hopper observed that the turbulent surface of Italian politics may be by design. “[in Italian politics] issues remain arguable, and thus negotiable.” he wrote. “Imprecision is, on the whole, highly prized. Definition and categorization are, by contrast, suspect. For things to remain flexible, they need to be complicated or vague, and preferably both.”

In August, Matteo Salvini of the right-wing League Party created the most recent “turbulent surface” by making moves to bring down the coalition government in hopes he would then win a snap election. Despite his soaring popularity, an unlikely coalition led by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement thwarted his attempt to gain control. 5-Star and its center-left former rival, the Democratic Party (PD), looked past their differences to freeze Salvini out completely. However temporary, sidelining Salvini and the League was a surprising outcome considering the rise of right-wing parties and leaders in Europe over the past few years. Many of these parties, including Salvini’s, have both overt or revealed links to Russia and its strongman president Vladimir Putin.

The “Non-Party” 5-Star Movement

Far from being a typical political party, the 5-Star Movement is a self-styled “anti-party” group that European journalist Darren Loucaides said “tapped deeply into one of the most powerful forces in Italian politics: disgust with Italian politics. Rather than offer an ideology or platform, Five Star offered a wholesale rebuke of the country’s entrenched, highly paid, careerist political class—left, right, and center.” A grassroots, populist movement, 5-Star emulated the profane style of its famous comedian co-founder, Bepe Grillo, calling some of its early events V-Days, a play on both the 2005 dystopian film “V for Vendetta” and a popular Italian vulgarity. Initially, the five stars in the group’s name referred to its policy priorities: sustainable transportation and development, public water, universal internet access, and environmentalism. Over the past 15 years however, that platform has expanded to include term limits, preventing those with criminal convictions from running for office, and now also a Universal Basic Income concept similar to the one making headlines in the 2020 US Presidential Race thanks to candidate Andrew Yang. Not so flatteringly, 5-Star has also been connected to anti-vaccination laws, the Brexit campaign, and American political operative Steve Bannon.


“When Grillo and Casaleggio founded the 5 Star Movement, few imagined they would reduce democratic freedom by doing so.”


Though Grillo was the public face of the movement for years, the man that truly orchestrated its rise to power was an unknown Italian entrepreneur and political activist named Gianroberto Casaleggio. Casaleggio used Grillo’s fame, straightforward internet blogs, and the Meetup.com platform to create a “grand techno-utopian project…an online voting and debate portal.” Casaleggio hoped to make the elected Italian Parliament obsolete, putting the power to legislate in the hands of the Italian people through their computers and smart devices. As Louciades wrote in Wired, as early as 2001 Casaleggio surmised technology would fundamentally change governments and politics, creating greater transparency and political accountability to the will of the people. He envisioned “interactive leaders” that deal directly with the masses, bypassing the media and its role as an interpreter. In Casaleggio’s view, a natural consequence of cutting out the media middleman would be the “imminent demise of journalism.” Society would be able to see politics as it truly is, not the “virtual reality” the media creates. He did not mince words: “Overcoming representative democracy” he said, “is therefore inevitable.”

Philosophers and Technocrats

Casaleggio named his direct democracy platform after the eighteenth century Enlightenment author and philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau and set its launch date for April 13th, 2016. Unfortunately for Casaleggio, he died two days before its debut and would never know how Rousseau became central to the rise of the 5-Star Movement in Italian politics. Rousseau creates democracy without the use of intermediaries or the centuries-old political caste by allowing members to vote for candidates, create referendums on party decisions, propose and debate laws, and participate in fund-raising. As the internet and smart devices make the world ever more interconnected, the potential for these tools to facilitate direct democracy could mean drastic change for governance and politics. An idealist may believe that these systems, when integrated with blockchain or online-banking style security, could empower more voters and bring participation levels to new highs. A skeptic would counter that replacing representative democracy with internet-enabled direct democracy actually creates opportunities for coercion, cybercrime, and consolidation of political power in the hands of a few powerful technocrats.

Ironically, the 5-Star Movement has been roundly criticized for pioneering this technique though it directly contradicts their populist aims. When Grillo and Casaleggio founded the Movement, in part to cut the middlemen out of Italian politics, few imagined they would reduce democratic freedom by doing so. However, with power and information strictly controlled by a small group of technocrats at Milan-based Casaleggio Associates, 5-Star stands accused of silencing dissent. Italian author Silvia Mazzini compared Beppe Grillo to a populist dictator, ushering in new party members then threatening to ostracize or punish them if they do not support his ideas. Despite espousing a desire to empower the common citizen, Casaleggio Associates hand-picks candidates for the Rousseau elections without any transparency whatsoever. There are however, more obvious problems using Rousseau as a mechanism for direct democracy. In July 2019 there were only 100,000 active members on the platform, a tiny fraction of the 10.7 million Italians that voted for the 5-Star Movement in the 2018 general election. These are underwhelming numbers, even in a country where one out of four people still lack access to the internet.

The Future of Online Voting and Direct Democracy

Though access and participation are problematic, security is perhaps a bigger concern. Rousseau suffered several high profile cyber attacks in the run up to elections in 2017 and 2018. Hackers stole members’ information and even published phone numbers and passwords of party leaders in what was probably an attempt to intimidate voters and candidates. In response, the Italian data protection authority fined Casaleggio Associates for failing to fix several security flaws in their system. Italy is hardly the only nation experimenting with risky technology in the democratic process. The Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center released a report that, among other things, concluded “mobile and internet voting technologies are not presently secure enough for large-scale applications. Nevertheless, nations like Ukraine are “moving forward with integrating blockchain-based online voting into their national election systems in efforts to increase security and prevent voter fraud.”

Italy is the first large western republic to utilize an internet-based technological platform that purports to expand democracy on a national scale. As other republics around the world grapple with new wave populism featuring interactive leaders that use social media to bypass traditional filters, the integrity of democratic voting processes becomes a paramount concern. Italy’s ongoing experiment with Rousseau demonstrates that the security vulnerabilities of online platforms and limitations on participation, access, and transparency inherent in these technologies can make some voters more equal than others. The world will do well to look deeper and decide if this is truly an expansion of democracy or actually, as Gianroberto Casaleggio predicted, “democracy overcome.”


Wilhelm JaredJared Wilhelm is a Foreign Area Officer and former Naval Aviator who lives in Italy. He is a member of the Military Writer’s Guild, was named a 2014 Olmsted Scholar, and is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, U.S. Naval Postgraduate School, and the U.S. Naval War College. His views are his own and do not represent the views or position of any other entity. He has previously published numerous articles on democracy around the world, including Some More Equal than Others.

South Africa Faces a Downward Spiral

This article has been republished with permission from our partner, Stratfor. The original version was first published in Stratfor’s WORLDVIEW and can be found here.


Highlights

  • Beset by infighting, the ruling African National Congress is incapable of effectively tackling the country’s worsening economic and social situation.
  • Those problems will drive more highly skilled individuals to emigrate, robbing the country of productive workers and tax revenue in the years ahead.
  • Deepening economic malaise and internal fissures will accelerate the erosion of the ANC’s once-dominant electoral position, possibly opening the door to more extreme parties, with serious policy implications.
  • As South Africa struggles to get its house in order, its influence over the rest of southern Africa will wane.

“We are sorry for what happened,” South African President Cyril Ramaphosa told a group of workers earlier this month in Durban. “Our image, our standing and our integrity [were] negatively affected.” Ramaphosa offered the heartfelt mea culpa following yet another wave of xenophobic riots across South Africa, yet presidential apologies are unlikely to stanch more violence directed against foreigners there — or cure the deeper malaise that drives the unrest. That’s because successive governments in Pretoria have failed to foster essential economic growth in South Africa, which posted an eye-popping unemployment rate of 29 percent earlier this year. Every week, thousands of its citizens are forced into unemployment or underemployment in the extensive black market.


The Big Picture

Years of economic and social woes have taken a toll on South Africa. As the country grapples with yet more indications of weak or negative growth, sky-high unemployment, massive crime rates and coming political change, its ability to remain a continental economic powerhouse will be under threat.

See 2019 Fourth-Quarter Forecast

See Sub-Saharan Africa section of the 2019 Fourth-Quarter Forecast

See Old Leaders in a New Africa


And it’s not just joblessness that is eating away at the rainbow nation; a host of other factors are driving home the severity of the country’s crisis: rising government debt, crumbling infrastructure, collapsing education standards, rampant crime and violence, currency volatility, investment outflows, and more. Together, it’s given rise to the sentiment that South Africa is increasingly a country of “haves” and “have nots,” tearing at the country’s social fabric, resulting in mass alienation and disenchantment with the political system. And with the ruling African National Congress (ANC) seemingly unable to get its own house — let alone South Africa’s — in order, the continent’s powerhouse will go through plenty more trials and tribulations before it sees any glimmer of hope.

A Battle Over Spoils

In spite of ever-worsening economic and social problems, the ANC government is incapable of implementing drastic and fundamental reforms to jump-start growth, offering instead “pie in the sky” policy rhetoric that has failed to translate into reality. At the heart of the problem is the ANC itself: The party is riven by massive internal factionalism. In the years immediately after apartheid, ideological differences may have driven the party’s divisions. But since then, the ANC has become mired in corruption and mismanagement, with the effects becoming evermore pronounced in recent years. In effect, the main battle brewing inside the ANC today centers on access to money and resources; policy differences, ultimately, are largely irrelevant. South Africa’s economic boost during the global commodity supercycle driven largely by Chinese demand in the late 2000s obscured this internal conflict and its negative impacts until the good economic times ended in 2014. Since then, bleaker prospects have challenged Ramaphosa and his allies’ efforts to turn around the party and government through anti-corruption efforts, in part because he must contend with other powerful factions — most notably those aligned with his predecessor, Jacob Zuma — that benefit from his administration’s failure to root out graft at all levels of government.

This has serious policy implications. Given Ramaphosa’s flimsy coalition against other ANC factions, the president cannot robustly push “controversial” economic reforms which, in the South African context, entails market-based reforms that demand increased efficiency. For starters, these limitations have hindered Ramaphosa’s goals of overhauling the country’s embattled public utility company, Eskom. After nearly scuttling the South African economy last summer amid blackouts that it instituted to protect the unstable electrical grid, Eskom has already sucked up billions of dollars (necessitating ever-mounting debt) in 2019 to keep the lights on. Unsurprisingly, there is little sign of an improvement in store.

Economic SnapshotDespite the gravity of the situation, several of the country’s powerful unions have vowed to turn on Ramaphosa if he seeks to turn around Eskom by either privatizing the utility or laying redundant workers off. (According to the International Monetary Fund, Eskom’s workforce is bloated by a whopping 66 percent.) Should Ramaphosa opt not to alienate the powerful labor leaders who paved his path to the top of the ANC in 2017, he will have few policy options with which to deal with Eskom. In the end, one thing is certain: Failing to fix the company risks plunging South Africa’s economy into more crisis. As one Eskom board member recently warned, the current electrical grid cannot handle even a relatively minor uptick in economic activity without experiencing a system meltdown.

Over the Cliff

The long-term implications of years of ANC-led mismanagement loom large. For one, recent data proffered by an emigration services company, Sable International, strongly suggests that an exodus of South African individuals with a high net worth, as well as highly skilled workers, is underway. This, naturally, will have consequences as South Africa continues to rely more heavily on its shrinking tax base for government revenue. In addition, the flight of highly skilled workers will affect key sectors in global demand, like healthcare and high-tech, robbing the country of the more productive segments of its society. Most troubling for the government, data shows that the vast majority of these individuals do not return to the country once they emigrate.

Pretoria’s inability to make the tough policy choices to alter course will ultimately result in the country’s economy continuing to take on water. With weak or negative growth projected for the next several years, unemployment will remain high, resulting in yet more misery, high crime and violence. And in addition to Eskom’s woes, the country’s water systems, public transportation, waste management and other critical infrastructure will further deteriorate, pushing the costs and consequences onto its citizens. This, in turn, will encourage more highly skilled workers to leave the country for greener — and safer — pastures. South Africa’s political elites will find this downward spiral difficult to break, paving the way for the country to lose its ability to influence its much smaller neighbors. And as the author R.W. Johnson has pointed out, unlike the case of Zimbabwe — which sent millions of economic migrants over the border to South Africa when its economy collapsed — South Africans trying to escape economic misery have nowhere else in the region to go.

By the time the country’s leaders receive a stronger popular mandate to remedy its dire situation, South Africa will be in a far deeper hole with far fewer human resources to help dig it out.

This constraint on mass emigration will create an increasing number of disaffected voters who will erode the ANC’s once-dominant electoral position. Amid the economic stagnation and political infighting, younger voters who have few memories of the ANC’s struggle against apartheid — and, thus, little loyalty to the party — will look for other options come election day. Quite when the ANC will lose its political predominance is an open question, but South Africa’s poor economic trajectory and the ANC’s internal squabbling mean that a sea change will come sooner than later.

Ultimately, the impact of the ANC’s eventual reckoning will depend greatly on which political parties step in to fill the political void. For example, a weakened ANC that loses its majority will likely have to join an alliance with another major political party — an act that in itself that will likely accelerate the ANC’s breakup as dormant ideological debates erupt and battles over resources lead to a final splintering. Accordingly, does the future ANC opt to align itself with the far-left Economic Freedom Fighters? If so, the impact would be huge. To begin with, such a partnership would cause a sharp left turn in the country’s policies, resulting in the accelerated transfers of wealth to the impoverished black majority (at a huge cost to market efficiency). Policies like these would spook foreign investors, increase the brain drain, cause capital flight and send South Africa-based corporations scattering to other major African hubs. Relatedly, it would turn Pretoria’s focus away from the rest of the continent, thereby speeding up South Africa’s decline as a regional economic and political power (with no country in the region likely to assume its place).

An uneasy future alliance with the center-right Democratic Alliance could push the ANC into adopting more market-based policies. However, this scenario would be no panacea, as it could only occur if it receives serious political backing from voters who have otherwise favored populism over market efficiency. (What’s more, it would also likely usher in the ANC’s fragmentation into splinter parties, greatly upending the political system.) Popular support for tougher market reforms is only likely to come after more years of economic and social woes. By the time the country’s leaders receive a stronger popular mandate to remedy its dire situation, South Africa will be in a far deeper hole with far fewer human resources to help dig it out.

Amid its political leaders’ inability to pursue the tough policy choices needed to address the country’s growing socio-economic crisis, South Africa is sinking. The result, for the time being, will be the increase of internal strife and policy uncertainty, the erosion of the country’s economic base, and the loss of its regional hegemony. The only question, then, is just how stern South Africa’s reckoning will be.


Stephen RakowskiStephen Rakowski is a Sub-Saharan Africa Analyst at Stratfor, where he monitors political, security and economic trends unfolding across the continent. Mr. Rakowski holds a master’s in government with a focus on diplomacy and conflict studies from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya in Israel. He also holds a bachelor’s in international relations from Franklin University Switzerland in Lugano, Switzerland. In addition to his studies, Mr. Rakowski has traveled and lived throughout Madagascar, Morocco and Kyrgyzstan.