It is widely believed that technology is the great equalizer; Twitter nearly brought the mullahs to their knees. But Iran and Honduras are demonstrating that technology is changing the playing field in ways that may benefit tyranny more than democracy.
Latin America, for example, has been splintered for 200 years. The Amazon, the Andes, and the Central American Isthmus made it very difficult to project power across distance. But the internet has pulled these countries closer and, regardless of one’s opinion of his project, it is clear that Chavez has developed an effective method for expanding Venezuelan influence to other power centers.
Like a phage he injects petrodollars and propaganda into local economies, buys influence, and rewrites the constitutional DNA of weaker countries. The ejection of Zelaya demonstrates that the immune system of the Honduran political body has learned something from the experiences of Bolivia, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. But it is not clear if the patient will survive.
Why is this influence any different than has occurred in the past, and why does it aid tyranny rather than democracy? It is different than the past because the projection of soft power is now very efficient against democracies at a distance, but less so against controlled societies. Chavez does not need to invade when he can send cash to disgruntled lieutenants, mayors, and opposition figures. He provides them cover (under the banner of a “Bolivarian” revolution) and the means to plunder their neighbors. In the past it would have required agents on the ground to accomplish this mischief. But now the very system that Bolivarians and Islamists disparage (Open Capitalism and Democracy) now provides the transmission route for infection. Overcoming local loyalties requires constant communication and familiarity, not just cash. It is now possible for Chavez to court the opposition in remote mountains or across impassable forests. He can incite Kane against Abel at a distance.
In Nicaragua in 2006, Chavez bought the support of regional mayors by providing “discounted” oil in a direct negotiation. This tactic made an end-run around the national government and materially assisted Ortega’s election campaign. Chavez used the same arrangement to buy influence with Joe Kennedy (D) in New England. In Honduras, control of the local oil distribution franchise was mediated via Chavez’s Petrocaribe.
In Honduran television, government spending for propaganda in favor of the “cuarta urna,” the fourth urn to hold a revolutionary plebiscite, was just $4 million. Venezuelan oil revenues are $20 billion or more in any given year. So Chavez’s annual budget can cover Honduran propaganda costs by about 2am on January 1st.
It should be noted that the US may not be immune from these effects. Campaign spending in the 2008 Presidential election totaled just over $1 billion (of which 2/3 was Obama and 1/3 McCain). Saudi oil revenues of over $130 billion mean that their budget could cover this amount by January 3rd. It is a commonplace among right wing blogs that online contributions to Obama from overseas have never been properly tracked. But one needn’t reach a verdict on this past election to understand that two oceans do not provide the protection they once did.
Iran, meanwhile, has gone quiet beneath a veil of repression, also funded by oil.