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Screen Shot 2016-04-14 at 6.02.50 PMApr 16th 2016

The rise of the Latin American political guru

IT IS a sensational claim. Andrés Sepúlveda, a Colombian computer-hacker serving a ten-year jail sentence for espionage, told Bloomberg Businessweek that he spent years carrying out dirty tricks during Latin American elections. He spied on rival campaigns, stole data and manipulated social media, often working for Juan José Rendón, a Miami-based Venezuelan political consultant. One of his tasks was to hack the communications of rivals of Enrique Peña Nieto in Mexico’s 2012 presidential campaign, he says. (Mr Rendón denied using Mr Sepúlveda for anything illegal. Mr Peña’s campaign denied hiring either of them.) Many of Mr Sepúlveda’s efforts were unsuccessful, Businessweek acknowledged, “but he has enough wins that he might be able to claim as much influence over the political direction of modern Latin America as anyone” in this century.

Disturbing as Mr Sepúlveda’s claims are, that is an exaggeration. Elections in Latin America, as elsewhere, turn mainly on the merits of the candidate and the mood of the voters. Mr Peña, for example, won because many Mexicans disliked his opponents. But Mr Sepúlveda’s account does show that the influence of political gurus and technology is growing in the region, and that it is not always benign.

Time was when Latin American elections were fairly predictable, with stable parties based on secular ideology or religion and with a dollop of political clientelism. Much has changed in the past two or three decades. Voters are better educated, more urban and less ideological (party loyalty has hit rock bottom). They share ideas and preferences through social media, which can help political outsiders get noticed. “The [established] media and political leaders have ever less influence,” says Jaime Durán Barba, an Ecuadorean consultant who helped Mauricio Macri pull off an unexpected victory in Argentina’s presidential election in November.

Such trends are a boon for gurus. Joseph Napolitan, who worked on John Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1960, introduced American-style consulting to Latin America, starting in Venezuela in the 1970s. As democracy spread in the 1980s, so did consultants. “Thirty years ago there were ten or so of us,” says Mr Durán. “Now there are thousands.”

Some campaigns use Americans, such as Dick Morris or James Carville, both advisers to Bill Clinton. “But it can be very hard if the candidate doesn’t speak English and they have to work through a translator,” says Mario Elgarresta, a Cuban-American consultant. Nowadays, the top Latin American gurus are almost household names, and are richly rewarded.

On the right of the political spectrum, Mr Rendón has worked on many successful campaigns, including those of Juan Manuel Santos in Colombia and, Mr Rendón claims, Mr Peña. On the left, João Santana, a Brazilian who is a former journalist and writer of pop songs, shot to fame when he helped Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva win a second term in 2006. His clever television spots contributed to Dilma Rousseff’s victories in 2010 and 2014. He notched up four other presidential wins outside Brazil, and does not deny a report that he is worth more than $50m. In February he was arrested on suspicion, which he called “baseless”, of receiving illicit payments in Brazil’s campaign in 2014 from Odebrecht, a construction firm.

The gurus tend to be self-promoting and bitchy. How effective are they? “You can do a good campaign but you can’t do miracles,” says Mr Elgarresta. “It’s the candidate who wins or loses,” Mr Durán agrees. But an understanding of the electorate, derived from polling and focus groups, a sound strategy and effective publicity can make a difference. The gurus complain that candidates often don’t know how to use them.

They insist that they do not engage in illegal actions, such as hacking. Daniel Zovatto of International IDEA, an inter-governmental body that promotes democracy, says that cyber-attacks are still exceptional in Latin America. He sees Mr Sepúlveda’s story as a wake-up call. The combination of hacking and social media means that there will be “more scope for both negative and dirty [ie, illegal] campaigning”, he says. Some countries are more awake to the threat than others. Brazil’s electoral tribunal, for example, organises hacking sessions to test the security of its electronic voting system.

No amount of dirty tricks can turn the tide of history or defeat a strong candidate. Today’s Latin American voters tend to dislike negative campaigning, Mr Durán thinks. But in a tight race, hackers might conceivably tip the result. Those who think elections should be fair as well as free have been warned.