Of Russian Meddlers and U.S. Political Consultants

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“Russia allegedly meddled in Bolivia’s controversial election,” Quartz reported over the weekend, based on a story by the Russian publication Proekt.

Beginning in January, Rosatom [Russia’s state nuclear energy company] recruited social media experts—ones who had helped politicians in Russian regions to electoral victory—to help Morales’ online campaign, Proekt reports. They landed in Bolivia as early as June, and were allegedly tasked with attacking Morales’ opponents and gaining attention for posts relating to his slogan “Bolivia for Everyone.” The main strategists returned to Moscow in October, before the election, and prepared a report on their mission, which they told a colleague would be sent to the Kremlin, Proekt reports.

If true, the story would hardly be surprising. Russia obviously meddles in elections, as does China, France, Saudi Arabia, Israeli and every other country that has a stake in the relevant political game, including, rather apparently, the United States.

The story made me think back to the documentary “Our Brand is Crisis” by Rachel Boynton. It tells how major American political consultants — including James Carville, Stan Greenberg and Jeremy Rosner, formerly Bill Clinton’s speechwriter — effectively elected the monstrous Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada as president of Bolivia in 2002. Evo Morales, just recently overthrown by the military, finished a surprise second. Since neither received 50 percent of the vote, congress picked pro-U.S., pro-business Gonzalez, known as “Goni,” to head the country. (That’s how it worked back in those glorious days of Bolivian democracy.)  In 2015, a particularly obnoxious fictionalized version of the documentary was released with the same title, starring Sandra Bullock and Billy Bob Thornton.

When Goni hired his Washington team, he had a mere 16 percent in the polls. But his well paid D.C. political consultants crafted a fearmongering campaign and were able to turn things around with tools not used previously in Bolivia, including focus groups and saturation political ads. They also convinced Goni to push for globalization and privatization of the gas sector.

To make a long story short, Goni followed their advice to the letter and after winning the presidency fulfilled his campaign promise on gas privatization. This led to massive protests about a year after he took office, which Goni put down by unleashing the army. It killed at least sixty mostly indigenous protestors and injured more than 400. (Following massive protests, Goni took off for the United States. In 2018, he stood civil trial in Florida — the Obama administration refused to extradite him — but a judge let him off on charges for the civilian deaths, saying there was “insufficient evidence.”)

Two short-lived presidencies followed Goni’s term in office. In 2005, Morales was elected.

Anyway, Carville et al. got some bad press as a result of the original documentary, but they didn’t suffer reputational damage or other fallout for their role in electing Goni, and the violence They were generally seen as charming and clever and became more famous, and no doubt better paid.

This is from a 2006 New York Times review of the documentary:

It is easy to paint the consultants, who are the stars of the film, as little more than mercenaries, cynical spinmeisters paid handsomely to manipulate public opinion. But they come across as much more dynamic and complicated: idealistic because they believe Mr. Sánchez de Lozada was the best choice, but Machiavellian because of the lengths they went to get him elected. That Mr. Sánchez de Lozada is rocked by protests just months into his presidency, and eventually overthrown, only adds to the drama.

“We are in this because we not only believe in democracy, but in a particular brand of democracy, which is progressive, social democratic, market-based and modern,” Jeremy Rosner, pollster, chief strategist and the lead protagonist in the film, tells Ms. Boynton.

And that’s the basic narrative of foreign policy coverage in the United States. Our cynical geopolitical opponents “meddle” to promote their own venal interests. (Which is true.) But our side, whether domestic consultants or allied foreign coup plotters, believe in democracy and progress, no matter how much evidence points in the opposite direction.

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