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U.S. govt-linked PR firm ran fake news networks for right-wing Latin American regimes

Published: September 6, 2020
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Source: the grayzone

A Washington, DC-based PR firm linked to the US government and Democratic Party, CLS Strategies, ran a fake news network on Facebook and Instagram, spreading propaganda for Bolivia’s coup regime and the right-wing opposition in Venezuela and Mexico.

By Ben Norton


A major US PR firm located just a few blocks from the White House has been caught running an industrial grade propaganda operation on social media. The information warfare blitzkreig relied on fake accounts and pages to spread disinformation on behalf of right-wing, US-backed governments in Latin America, while deploying covert propaganda to destabilize the leftist governments targeted by the US in Venezuela and Mexico.

The company behind the campaign, CLS Strategies, signed a contract to represent Bolivia’s far-right junta and provide “strategic communications counsel” in the lead-up to that country’s ostensible election. After coming to power through a US-backed military coup in November 2019, the Bolivian regime has delayed the election numerous times on specious grounds.

CLS Strategies also used its network of fake accounts and pages to push propaganda on behalf of Venezuela’s right-wing opposition and the US-backed parallel coup regime of Juan Guaidó.

Some of the CLS-run Facebook and Instagram profiles even posed as disgruntled Venezuelan soldiers, and called on members of the armed forces to rebel against the socialist government. Other pages claimed to be run by disaffected former supporters of leftist leaders like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales.

The DC-based company similarly filled social media with disinformation demonizing Mexico’s left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) and his party Morena, who have been under increasing attack by right-wing oligarch forces.

On Facebook, the PR firm spent a staggering $3.6 million on ads to promote this propaganda.

CLS Strategies has close links to the US government. The firm employs former government officials like Mark Feierstein, who oversaw Latin America policy for the Obama White House. Feierstein also served as coordinator of Latin America activities for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), a regime-change arm that has been used as a front for covert CIA operations and spearheaded the Trump administration’s coup attempts in Venezuela.

Another CLS senior advisor, David Romley, worked as a Pentagon spokesman, press attaché to the secretary of defense, and public affairs officer for the US Marine Corps. Before moving to CLS, Romley also served as vice president for communications at the German Marshall Fund, a prominent Cold War-era think tank funded by the US government and NATO that has been integral in pushing the new cold war on Russia and China.

A co-founder of CLS, Peter Schechter, was also the founding director of the Latin America center at the major Washington think tank the Atlantic Council, which is funded by the US and UK governments and European Union and acts as a de facto organ of the NATO military alliance.

Grayzone contributor Alex Rubinstein exposed Schechter’s unsavory career as a Washington insider, revealing how CLS Strategies has worked on behalf of numerous right-wing Latin America leaders whose neoliberal policies spawned migration crises. As Rubinstein reported, Schechter opened a progressive “Resistance”-themed restaurant in downtown Washington, DC called Immigrant Food, forging partnerships with immigrant rights NGOs.

Schechter’s former clients at CLS include the Colombian ex-President Álvaro Uribe, who oversaw death squad massacres and is being investigated by his country’s supreme court for crimes against humanity, along with Mexico’s ex-President Enrique Peña Nieto, who is connected to drug cartels and major corruption scandals.

A decade before it was hired by Bolivia’s coup regime, CLS Strategies signed a contract to represent another conservative dictatorial regime, this time in Honduras, after it took power in a US government-backed military coup in 2009.

On its website, CLS boasts of having lobbied for more than a dozen foreign governments and having “managed campaigns and advised public officials on six continents.”

According to the PR firm’s own public listings, as well as Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings reviewed by The Grayzone, CLS Strategies has worked for right-wing political forces from Argentina, Azerbaijan, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Egypt, Honduras, Kenya, Mexico, Nicaragua, Nigeria, Peru, Portugal, Serbia, Spain, and Venezuela, as well as the World Bank and large corporations.

CLS Strategies international clients Latin America

Another CLS Strategies partner, Juan Cortiñas, boasted on the firm’s website that he has represented top right-wing leaders and major corporations in Latin America, including the Venezuelan opposition.

Since the fake news ring was exposed, however, CLS Strategies has edited its website to scrub some of these compromising materials, removing the bios of associates like Feierstein and Cortiñas.

This controversy underscores how US PR firms, elite Washington insiders, and foreign opposition groups work in tandem to promote right-wing regimes in Latin America while astroturfing opposition to democratically elected left-wing governments.

Given the extensive links CLS has to the Democratic Party, this scheme also highlights the bipartisan consensus around regime change and support for corrupt neoliberal leaders linked to death squads and drug trafficking.

Further, the scandal shows how foreign policy apparatchiks in Washington do exactly what they accuse Russia of doing: meddle in foreign elections to try to install their preferred candidates in power.

Facebook deletes CLS Strategies fake news ring

The Grayzone has reported on social media corporations’ US government-backed censorship of independent media outlets and voices critical of US foreign policy. Virtually all of Facebook’s purges of alleged fake accounts have targeted foreign governments and firms in other countries. The CLS Strategies fake news ring is apparently the first time Facebook has ever taken down a US-based operation.

Facebook published a press release on September 1 acknowledging that it had removed a network of 55 fake accounts and 42 pages, along with 36 Instagram profiles, “for violating our policy against​​ foreign interference​, which is​​ coordinated inauthentic behavior​ on behalf of a foreign entity.”

An accompanying report (PDF) released by Facebook acknowledged that these fake accounts portrayed themselves “as independent news entities, civic organizations and political fan Pages,” while some “posed as locals in countries they targeted” and “impersonated political parties.”

The social media giant said the network “posted content in support of the political opposition in Venezuela and the interim government in Bolivia, and criticism of Morena, a political party in Mexico.” It identified the network as being connected to the PR firm CLS Strategies.

Facebook shared the information about this fake news ring with Stanford University’s Internet Observatory, which analyzed the materials and published a report on September 4 (PDF), showing how CLS Strategies created 17 Facebook pages to promote the Venezuelan opposition, along with 11 for the Bolivian coup regime.

A total of 509,000 unique accounts followed one or more of these propaganda pages on Facebook. Some pages were huge, with as many as 163,000 followers, while others had very few subscribers.

The Bolivia pages spread Spanish-language propaganda promoting coup leader Jeanine Áñez, a right-wing extremist from a fringe party that got just 4 percent of the vote in the November election but who was recognized by the United States as the country’s supposed interim president.

The Stanford report noted that the “Venezuela-focused assets supported and promoted Venezuelan opposition leaders but changed in tone in 2020, reflecting factional divides in the opposition and a turn away from opposition president Juan Guaidó.”

Most of these propaganda pages were run out of the United States, although some operatives in Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Peru were involved.

US infowarriors pose as Venezuelan soldiers and call for rebellion

The majority of the Facebook pages in this CLS Strategies-led fake news ring published boilerplate conservative propaganda, with names like “Undone with Socialism” and “Die Oppression – Free Venezuela.”

But some of the accounts were more sophisticated disinformation operations, targeting disaffected leftists and even falsely posing as Venezuelan soldiers.

Stanford CLS Strategies fake news Facebook Venezuela Bolivia

One CLS-run page, titled “Chavista FAN,” posed as a member of the Venezuelan military who had supported late socialist President Hugo Chávez but lost faith in current President Nicolás Maduro.

This was echoed by another Facebook page, “Liberatory Soldiers,” which falsely claimed to consist of members of the armed forces seeking to oust Maduro.

The “Chavista FAN” page included a profile photo of an anonymous soldier proudly identifying as a supporter of Venezuela’s leftist Chavista movement. FAN is a play of words using the English word fan, which is common in Spanish, while also referencing Venezuela’s military, the Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana, or FANB (but by removing the B, which references the left-wing nationalist Bolivarian movement popularized by Chávez).

In one particularly insidious post disclosed by Facebook, the CLS Strategies-run account clearly claims to be operated by members of the Venezuelan armed forces. While making no mention of the suffocating US sanctions and embargo that have devastated Venezuela’s health sector and economy and prevented the government from buying medical equipment and medicine, the Chavista FAN page wrote, “After years of looting, the health sector is in shambles. Are we in the FANB (Venezuelan military) going to continue protecting the lie at the expense of the public?”

The use of “vamos” in the post (“are we going to”) expressly includes the publisher in the collective we, as a putative member of the Venezuelan armed forces.

CLS Strategies Venezuela FAN Chavista propaganda

A post from a CLS Strategies-run Facebook account falsely posing as a member of Venezuela’s military

Chavista FAN was targeted at patriotic leftist Venezuelans, but simultaneously spread disinformation on behalf of US-recognized coup leader Juan Guaidó.

Another post released in the report showed that the page pressured Venezuelan soldiers to rise up against their government, by reassuring them that Guaidó had offered “amnesty.” The post also implored soldiers to stop blocking the entrance of supposed “humanitarian aid” that Washington was using as a weapon in its coup attempt.

CLS Strategies Venezuela propaganda Chavista Guaido

Venezuelan opposition propaganda on a CLS Strategies-run Facebook page

A similar Facebook page overseen by the DC-based PR firm was devoted specifically to supporting Venezuela’s US government-funded far-right opposition leader María Corina Machado, a close ally of neoconservative Senator Marco Rubio who has openly, repeatedly called for the US military to invade her country.

DC PR firm spreads right-wing propaganda by posing as disgruntled leftists

CLS Strategies’ Bolivia propaganda was similar to its disinformation campaign against Venezuela. The firm created Facebook pages promoting the coup leader Jeanine Áñez with titles like “Everyone with Áñez.”

The PR firm also set up a page called “Camacho Lovers Santa Cruz,” devoted to the far-right goon squad leader, Luis Fernando Camacho, a businessman from Bolivia’s wealthiest city who started his political career in a neo-fascist Christian paramilitary group founded by former Nazi collaborators.

Another page targeted Bolivian women specifically. With the name “Free Bolivian Women,” this Facebook profile posted propaganda attempting to link elected former President Evo Morales and his allies to organized crime, a common yet baseless talking point of the right-wing opposition.

CLS Strategies Bolivia Facebook propaganda

CLS Strategies propaganda targeting Bolivian women on Facebook

Some of the CLS Strategies propaganda relied on more devious techniques. A Facebook page the company oversaw was called “MAS for Bolivia,” and sought to drive a wedge in between Bolivians who had previously voted for the Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party and the former President Evo Morales, who was overthrown in the 2019 coup.

On Instagram, the CLS disinformation campaign was similarly duplicitous. In addition to running parallel accounts with some of the same names as the Facebook pages, CLS created profiles posing as disenchanted supporters of Venezuela President Nicolás Maduro.

One Instagram account was titled “Maduro Style,” and included as its bio, “Maduro, motherland, and death.” Another Instagram profile was named “A True Madurista,” or a true supporter of Maduro. (“Madurista” is however not a term used by actual leftists in Venezuela; it is mostly an insult used by the opposition to attack President Maduro and his supporters.)

An even more dishonest Instagram account overseen by the US PR firm was called “VTV Journalists.” This page posed as former insiders from Venezuela’s state broadcaster VTV, falsely claiming to be an “account of journalists fired from VTV in a humiliating way, but with good contacts inside.”

CLS Strategies Instagram fake accounts Venezuela propaganda

These pages show how Washington-based CLS infowarriors posed as Venezuelan critical Chavistas and disgruntled Bolivian leftists to attract progressives who had supported Chávez, Maduro, and Morales, but to mislead them and warp their views by exposing them to opposition disinformation.

Conservatives already supported these right-wing opposition forces in Venezuela and Bolivia, so the PR firm was clearly seeking to mislead and propagandize left-wing sympathizers.

CLS Strategies signs PR contract with Bolivia’s coup regime

After overthrowing Bolivia’s democratically elected President Evo Morales in a US-backed military coup on November 10, 2019, the new junta immediately sought out public relations flacks in Washington help whitewash its image.

Almost exactly a month later, on December 11, 2019, CLS Strategies registered under the US Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) as a lobbyist for the Bolivian coup regime.

The firm signed a 90-day contract, at a neat $90,000, agreeing to “provide strategic communications counsel,” which included “creating and distributing communications materials, interfacing with the media, and providing communications services as directed by the Plurinational State of Bolivia.”

This contract did not include CLS Strategies’ work on behalf of the Venezuelan opposition. It is not clear where the firm got the $3.6 million it spent on Facebook ads.

CLS Strategies Bolivia coup regime FARA

The FARA registration confirming CLS Strategies registered to represent the Bolivian coup regime in December 2019

As part of its contract with the Bolivian coup regime, CLS Strategies also helped coordinate meetings between top US government officials and the Bolivian junta’s far-right minister of government, Arturo Murillo, according to another FARA document.

Murillo is an extremist who pledged to “hunt” left-wing leaders from Evo Morales’ MAS party like “animals,” and even went so far as to falsely claim that indigenous protesters massacred by the coup regime had actually shot themselves and then blamed it on the junta.

When he visited Washington in December 2019, CLS Strategies organized in-person meetings between Murillo and Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Rick Scott, along with staffers from the National Security Council, State Department, USAID, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Encuentro con Senador @marcorubio evaluamos toda la región. Sus desafíos y sus victorias. Saludamos compromiso con la democracia boliviana y del hemisferio, compromiso de avanzar juntos contra amenazas a Libertades pic.twitter.com/CXj9HNN4z8

— Arturo Murillo (@ArturoMurilloS) December 19, 2019

 

Agradecido con el Senador Rick Scott @SenRickScott de la Florida, quien expresó su apoyo al restablecimiento de la democracia en Bolivia y compromiso con un proceso electoral limpio, justo y transparente en nuestro país pic.twitter.com/SSZpRRu5nE

— Arturo Murillo (@ArturoMurilloS) December 18, 2019

 

CLS also successfully scheduled meetings between the extremist Bolivian minister and Luis Almagro, the hardline right-wing leader of the Organization of American States (OAS), which played a key role in the coup, as well as with the head of the OAS’ Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

Me reuní con el @MindeGobierno de #Bolivia, @ArturoMurilloS. Dialogamos sobre el proceso de transición en su país, en especial acerca del cronograma electoral que normalizará definitivamente el país. pic.twitter.com/C7HKyBJpMa

— Luis Almagro (@Almagro_OEA2015) December 17, 2019

 

The PR firm then helped plan an event with Murillo at the corporate lobby group the Council of the Americas / Americas Society.

CLS Strategies also coordinated interviews with Murillo for CNN en Español and the major Spanish news agency EFE.

On behalf of the coup regime, CLS likewise contacted the offices of Senator Tim Kaine and House Representatives Eliot Engel, Albio Sires, Mario Diaz-Balart, and Francis Rooney, along with the the prominent DC think tank the Inter-American Dialogue, which hosted an event with Bolivian fascist coup leader Luis Fernando Camacho.

CLS Strategies Bolivia coup meetings Washington DC

Meetings with top US government officials in Washington, DC that CLS Strategies organized on behalf of the Bolivian coup regime

The agreement that CLS Strategies signed with the Bolivian was personally signed by partner Brian Berry, who boasts of having worked for an array of large corporate clients.

At the same time, CLS Strategies Managing Director William Moore also registered with FARA to represent the Bolivian coup regime.

FARA requires registrants to disclose if they have made any political contributions in the past 60 days. Moore revealed that he had donated to Joe Biden’s presidential campaign exactly one week before. (This was months before the start of the Democratic presidential primaries.)

CLS Strategies William Moore Latin America

CLS Strategies Managing Director William Moore, who helped run the fake news campaign on social media

William Moore was identified in the Stanford Internet Observatory report as one of the CLS employees who operated the fake news campaign on Facebook.

CLS Strategies removed William Moore’s bio from its website, apparently in response to the revelation of its involvement in the Facebook fake news scandal. Moore also took down his LinkedIn profile.

But a cached version of William Moore’s CLS page is available, indicating that it was only recently scrubbed. There, Moore boasts that “he applies his professional experience in Latin America to serve private and public sector clients across the region and in the practice areas of public affairs, crisis communications, and political strategy.”

Moore’s bio adds, “Prior to joining CLS, William cut his teeth at a strategic communications and public affairs agency in Bogota, through which he worked with a government ministry.” He also represented numerous multinational corporations, helping them as they “expanded operations in Colombia.”

CLS Strategies Bolivia coup regime lobbying William Moore

The FARA registration filed by CLS Strategies Managing Director William Moore to represent the Bolivian coup regime in December 2019

When CLS Strategies Managing Director William Moore and partner Brian Berry registered to lobby on behalf of the Bolivian coup regime, they were joined by another colleague: Juan Cortiñas Garcia.

As with Moore’s profile, Cortiñas’ bio was removed from the CLS Strategies website, as the firm has apparently tried to scrub its involvement in the scandal. Coriñas also took down his LinkedIn profile, which he had linked to in his CLS bio.

But in its report on the CLS fake news ring, Stanford University linked to an archived version of Juan Cortiñas’ professional profile. In this bio, he boasts of having “worked with some of the leading political leaders in Latin America such as former Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, Argentine Congressman Sergio Massa and the Venezuelan opposition, helping with political communications, campaign strategy and developing digital-based campaigns.”

Cortiñas added that he has “counseled some of the largest companies in Latin America,” and boasted of “helping a Fortune 500 company overcome a reputational crisis that spread across the front pages of newspapers in Mexico.”

CLS Strategies Bolivia coup lobbying Juan Cortinas

The FARA registration filed by CLS Strategies partner Juan Cortiñas to represent the Bolivian coup regime in December 2019

FARA registration files reviewed by The Grayzone show that Juan Cortiñas has registered to work on behalf of numerous foreign governments, including Aruba, Bolivia, the right-wing administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico, and the coup regime in Honduras.

CLS Strategies signs PR contract with Honduras’ coup regime

Ten years before the United States backed a right-wing military coup in Bolivia, Washington did the same in the Central American nation of Honduras.

On June 28, 2009, the Honduran military overthrew the country’s democratically elected left-leaning president, Manuel Zelaya, and physically removed him from the country.

Zelaya told The Grayzone in Honduras, in an interview on the 10th anniversary of the coup, that the US government had threatened him because of his close political and economic relations with socialist President Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

In the wake of the putsch, the new unelected right-wing regime in Honduras searched for publicists in DC. It found a loyal ally in a firm called Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates, which would go on to rebrand as CLS Strategies in 2014.

In September 2009, Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates filed FARA paperwork acknowledging that it had signed a four-month contract for the Honduran coup regime, at the cost of $292,000, not including tens of thousands more in additional expenses.

CLS Strategies Chlopak Leonard Schechter Honduras 2009 coup

The FARA registration Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates (now CLS Strategies) signed with the Honduran coup regime in September 2009

At the time, the senior vice president of Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates was Juan Cortiñas Garcia, who would go on to represent the Bolivian coup regime a decade later.

Cortiñas said in his FARA registration that his job was to “provide public relations counsel and services to the government of Honduras in their efforts to communicate with policy markers or opinion leaders, their staff, the news media and other related third parties.”

In the years following the coup, Honduras became the murder capital of the planet, with some of the highest levels of inequality of any country. The violence and widespread corruption fueled a massive refugee crisis on the southern US border.

The subsequent dictatorial leader of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, or “JOH,” is intimately linked to the drug trade; his brother Tony Hernández was convicted of trafficking nearly 200,000 kilograms (440,000 pounds) of cocaine and machine guns.

A US district court even stated that infamous Mexican drug lord El Chapo Guzmán gave JOH a $1 million bribe to help him rig Honduras’ 2013 elections.

CLS Strategies signs PR contract with corrupt Colombian President Uribe

The Honduran coup regime is by no means the only connection between CLS Strategies and corrupt, drug-linked Latin American leaders. The shadowy PR firm has also worked with a notorious demagogue who may have the dubious honor of being the most corrupt and violent president in modern Colombian history.

On its website, CLS boasts of having represented both the government of Colombia and the presidential campaign of far-right former leader Álvaro Uribe. Uribe is infamous for working closely with drug cartels and death squads.

In August, Colombia’s Supreme Court put Uribe under house arrest, accusing him of crimes against humanity and bribery, and began officially investigating his involvement in paramilitary massacres of human rights activists.

CLS Strategies Colombia Uribe

CLS Strategies worked for Colombia and far-right President Álvaro Uribe, who is linked to drug cartels and death squads

The US government has long known that Uribe is deeply involved with Colombian drug cartels and far-right paramilitary groups. Declassified cables from the 1990s show that the US State Department was well aware of his criminal ties, but Washington still strongly supported his rise to power.

A ranch owned by Uribe and his family members was used as the base of a death squad. But this has not stopped the Trump administration from pressuring the Colombian justice system to release Uribe and end its investigation into his crimes.

CLS Strategies signs PR contract with corrupt Mexican President Peña Nieto

In addition to representing the drug-linked Honduran coup regime and death squad aficionado Álvaro Uribe, Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates also worked for the transition team of Mexico’s notoriously corrupt President Enrique Peña Nieto.

Peña Nieto allegedly won the presidential election on July 1, 2012. Just five days later, on July 6, he signed a contract with Chlopak, Leonard, Schechter and Associates.

The PR firm agreed, for a monthly fee of $50,000, to “provide communications counsel and assistance to the transition team including dissemination of news/announcements from the transition team.”

Once again, CLS consultant Juan Cortiñas Garcia registered with FARA to represent Peña Nieto, pledging to work on “Public relations, communications and media relations related to election/presidential transition” and “Potential distribution of materials or information to U.S. media, policymakers or third parties.”

CLS Strategies’ involvement with Peña Nieto during this transition period is especially controversial, because he was credibly accused of rigging the 2012 election. It appears the firm was hired to try to deal with these very serious, substantiated accusations.

Then-presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who came in second place (and now serves as the president of Mexico), immediately cast doubt on the 2012 election results. López Obrador gathered evidence showing how how Peña Nieto’s neoliberal party PRI bribed voters, buying huge sums of votes.

In 2016, these accusations were confirmed by a prominent Colombian hacker named Andrés Sepúlveda. Sepúlveda, who is currently serving a 10-year prison sentence for spying on Colombian officials, told Bloomberg that he was given a budget of $600,000 to assemble a team of hackers to rig the 2012 Mexican presidential election. Bloomberg reported that he and his fellow hackers “stole campaign strategies, manipulated social media to create false waves of enthusiasm and derision, and installed spyware in opposition offices, all to help Peña Nieto, a right-of-center candidate, eke out a victory.”



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