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US Groups Linked to COVID Conspiracies Pour Millions of ‘Dark Money’ into Latin America

A satirical poster of President Jair Bolsonaro saying COVID-19 ‘is just a flu’ in Brazil, where US-linked groups have also denied the virus exists. | Cris Faga/NurPhoto/PA Images

MONTEVIDEO, Oct 30 2020 (IPS) - Half a dozen US Christian right groups have poured millions of dollars into Latin America and have promoted misinformation about COVID-19 and other health and rights issues, openDemocracy can reveal today.

These groups are part of a bigger number of twenty Christian right groups that have spent at least $44 million of ‘dark money’ into Latin America since 2007. Several of them are linked to President Trump’s administration.

None of these organisations disclose the identities of their donors or details of how exactly they spend their money in Latin America. Many do not mention their Latin American operations on their websites.

One group has called COVID-19 “the most monumental social engineering and ideological… effort in history”. The leader of another group also sits on an anti-China lobby group with former Trump adviser Steve Bannon – and claims that coronavirus was man-made in a Chinese lab.

These groups use the Global South as a laboratory for misinformation campaigns, with incalculable costs for lives and well-being

Alejandra Cárdenas, Center for Reproductive Rights

At least three of these US groups have attacked the World Health Organisation (WHO) during the pandemic, claiming for instance that it is “using COVID-19 to spread abortion”. The Trump administration announced earlier this year that it would halt US funding to the global health body.

Two groups have also supported anti-abortion projects across Latin America that have been accused of using “deception and manipulation” against vulnerable women. Another organisation has funded a controversial app that employs “misleading” advice to discourage the use of contraception.

All of these US groups promote a strict vision of a “traditional family” against abortion and LGBT equality. Latin America already has some of the world’s highest rates of adolescent pregnancies and murders of LGBT people; many rights advocates say these groups are aggravating the situation.

Alejandra Cárdenas, from global advocacy group Center for Reproductive Rights, said these findings “prove a manipulation we’ve been seeing for years by the US Christian right in Latin America and Africa, meant to break the social fabric and human rights protections that popular movements fought for”.

These groups “use the Global South as a laboratory for misinformation campaigns,” she said, with “incalculable costs for lives and well-being.”

Senator Humberto Costa from the Brazilian Workers Party added that “these findings confirm that there is an international network behind orchestrated actions to misinform and attack specific groups with hate messages.”


COVID-19 conspiracies

In February, as coronavirus infections began to swell globally, a veteran US anti-abortion activist claimed that the virus was created in a Chinese lab as a bioweapon and then released, either intentionally or accidentally. President Trump has also shared this theory.

The activist is Steven Mosher. He directs a US group called Population Research Institute (PRI), which has published an online book in English and Spanish claiming that China’s fabrication of the virus has the “clear intention… of radically modifying the known world through social engineering”.

Mosher also sits on the board of an anti-China lobby group that he co-founded with Steve Bannon, Trump’s former campaign director. Bannon was earlier this year charged with fraud over a fundraising campaign to build a wall between the US and Mexico. He has denied these charges.

PRI has spent more money in Latin America than it has anywhere else in the world, outside the US – more than $1 million between 2008 and 2017. While it is not one of the biggest spenders in the region, it appears to be one of the most active.

Among its activities, PRI says it has trained staff of CitizenGo, a Spain-based global conservative group that has links to far-right parties across Europe. PRI trained CitizenGo “in the use of political strategy tools, communicational and scenario analysis”, and PRI’s Latin America director, Peruvian Carlos Polo Samaniego, is also on the board of CitizenGo.

Polo is accused by his son, LGBT rights activist Carlos Polo Villanueva, of having taught him to manipulate the results of an online survey about the legalisation of abortion in Peru.

His son told openDemocracy: “I was ten or twelve years old, and my father asked me if I wanted to help him with his job. He put me in front of a computer, saying ‘you vote here against abortion, then go to cookies, disable cookies, return to the webpage and vote again. Do it as many times as you can’.”

Polo’s son also claimed that Catholic and evangelical schools pushed their students to attend the “marches for life” that his father and other ultra-conservatives organised. He said: “I marched against abortion as a child because our school took roll calls. I was forced to march in 2009 and 2010.”

Polo did not deny his son’s accounts when asked about them by openDemocracy. He said: “Obviously, there are a lot of differences between the points of view of LGBTI activists and PRI’s. LGBTI activists are free to express their views. I know what my son Carlos thinks. I love him as a son and respect him as a person, despite our conflicting opinions. PRI defends and promotes the freedom of expression for all peoples”.

In April, CitizenGo launched an online petition to “defund” the World Health Organisation, alleging that it uses public money to “promote Communist China’s false COVID information” as well as to “teach masturbation to children from ages 0 to 4… and force doctors to perform sex reassignment surgery on children”.


COVID-19 misinformation

Another one of the groups analysed by openDemocracy is the American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), which has disclosed spending at least $2.7 million in Latin America since 2007.

Founded in 1960 in Brazil as an anti-communist, Catholic network, its US branch has called the ongoing coronavirus crisis “the most monumental social engineering and ideological… effort in history”.

A Brazilian member of the TFP network has published articles denying the existence of COVID-19 cases in Rio de Janeiro and claiming that coronavirus mortality figures have been “inflated and manipulated” by the media and politicians to fuel “fear and hopelessness”.

“With the justification of fighting the virus, the church and the good people are persecuted,” said one of the articles published by TFP’s Instituto Plinio Corrêa de Oliveira in Brazil, referring to temporary closures of churches in the country – which currently has the world’s second-highest number of COVID-19 deaths, after the US.

Cárdenas, from the Center for Reproductive Rights, said: “The public must know who is behind these campaigns, and understand their alignment with political causes. Why are they interested in weakening public health protection systems, like the WHO? What benefit can be drawn from it?”

“Misinformation is instrumental to the Latin American right-wing tactic of dismantling rights,” added Thiago Amparo, law professor at educational institute Fundação Getulio Vargas of São Paulo. “Being funded transnationally, these misinformation tactics function as disruptive tools in the region’s democracies.”

“We are not behind or aware of any campaigns and certainly deny wanting to weaken or take any actions against public health”, the American TFP group told openDemocracy. It added that the articles published by its “autonomous sister organisation” in Brazil “are not official statements” from the group.

One of the articles was authored by a Catholic priest that is not a member of TFP, it said, and the other is a commentary on government statistics.


Misleading women about reproductive health

The president of the US Catholic conservative group Human Life International has also claimed that the WHO is “using COVID-19 to spread abortion”.

This group has spent $2.3 million in Latin America since 2007. Together with another US anti-abortion group, Heartbeat International, it supports a network of ‘crisis pregnancy centres’ that have been accused of misleading and manipulating Latin American women, as openDemocracy revealed this year.

Another US group, the World Youth Alliance (WYA), has spent a more modest $640,000 in Latin America – but it has also been involved in activities condemned for “misleading” women about their health. It is promoting a controversial fertility app (the FEMM app) that dissuades women from using birth control and emergency contraception, claiming it is dangerous.

If a user asks the FEMM app specifically for information on contraception, it says it doesn’t provide this as “artificial means” of preventing pregnancy “can be detrimental to a woman’s health by suppressing hormone function. Hormones are needed in sufficient levels to promote optimal health in the body”.

“The app is clearly misleading,” said Grazzia Rey, associate professor of gynaecology at Uruguay’s University of the Republic, “as it circumvents the scientific evidence provided by the WHO and Uruguay’s ministry of health guidelines, on the efficacy and security for all contraceptive methods.”

If a user says they want to avoid pregnancy, the app tells them to abstain from sex completely or on days when they are most fertile. Anita Román, president of Chile’s Midwifery Society, said such ‘fertility awareness’ methods “have a high margin of insecurity,” while sexual abstinence “is unnatural.”

In a “training course” from WYA’s sister group FEMM, which created the app, a Catholic gynaecologist from Chile claimed that young women take birth control “not because they don’t want to have babies, but because they want to be beautiful”. (A study by the US Guttmacher Institute found that 86% of women use contraceptive pills primarily to prevent pregnancies.)


Spending not disclosed

Globally, openDemocracy found that 28 US Christian right groups have poured at least $280 million into activities around the world since 2007 – led by their spending in Europe (almost $90 million).

However, this data underestimates the US Christian right’s influence and spending internationally. Money sent via churches, or groups registered as ‘church affiliates’, for example, is not included in the total because these organisations are not required to publicly disclose their spending.

The Billy Graham Evangelistic Association (BGEA) is the biggest spender in Latin America, spending at least $21 million in the region between 2007 and 2014, plus almost $10 million in Mexico and Canada. It’s led by the late American televangelist’s son Franklin Graham – an outspoken supporter of President Trump who said that God was behind the 2016 election.

Graham – who called the cancellation of his festivals in Europe due to COVID-19 “spiritual warfare” – was also in Russia last year meeting a Kremlin official who is under US sanctions, on a trip that he said was personally signed off by Trump’s vice president Michael Pence.

After 2014, the BGEA stopped disclosing its financial information as it obtained a reclassification as an “association of churches”.

Focus on the Family, the second-largest spender in Latin America ($6.2 million between 2008 and 2018), offers online shows, podcasts and counselling in Spanish with the message that homosexuality is “not normal” and trans identity is a “disorder and has to be treated”.

This group’s founder James Dobson has spoken out against Trump’s impeachment and celebrated his anti-abortion and pro-Israel positions. In early 2020, Jenna Ellis, who once worked for Dobson, was appointed Trump’s campaign legal advisor.

Cárdenas, from the Center for Reproductive Rights, accused all these groups of working “to break down the entire human rights protection system, which is their hidden and ultimate goal”. She said: “I hope this investigation is widely shared and helps us to open eyes at their full agenda.”

In response to openDemocracy’s questions, Polo at PRI said the group “complies with the US and Peru’s laws” and that all their financial information was “publicly registered and available to any citizen, as is established by law”.

He said that Facebook’s removal of PRI director’s Steven Mosher’s article – on the origins of COVID-19 – was later reversed, “without explanation, proving that censoring Steven Mosher publication was an error beyond any doubt.”

“We are in full compliance with US law in what we disclose or not disclose” the American TFP told openDemocracy. About LGBT rights it said: “Our position is that of the Catholic Church, which calls homosexual acts a grave sin.”

BGEA told openDemocracy that was reclassified as an association of churches because it had been operating in that way “for years, as virtually everything BGEA does is in cooperation with churches” – and because such registration offers groups more protection from government interference.

Filing non-profit disclosures had become “increasingly onerous”, it added, though it “continues to submit to an independent financial audit each year and posts a consolidated financial statement on its website for public review.”

Focus on the Family said: “We believe in the inherent worth and value of every individual, which is why we so passionately support policies designed to strengthen families all across the world.”

HLI, WYA and CitizenGo did not respond to openDemocracy’s requests for comments.

This story was originally published by openDemocracy

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