In Other News: Maduro Tightens Grip in Venezuela, FireEye Hacked by Russians & More – December 11, 2020

December 11, 2020

Venezuela held legislative elections on December 6 in which just 32% of the population participated and Maduro tightened his grip on power. The Venezuelan opposition, led by Juan Guaidó, boycotted the elections. Opting to sit out the elections, which they said would be fraudulent, the opposition lost seats in the National Assembly to Maduro’s Unified Socialist Party (PSUV) and other pro-government parties. According to Venezuela’s National Electoral Council (CNE), which is also controlled by Maduro loyalists, pro-Maduro candidates won with 67.6% of the vote which means 91% of the seats available in the National Assembly. The opposition has called for a referendum to reject the outcome of the legislative elections, but it is unclear what tangible results will come from such a vote and many observers are calling this the end of Guaidó’s self-proclaimed interim presidency of Venezuela. Recall that in early 2019, Guaidó declared himself the legitimate interim president of Venezuela when, as leader of the National Assembly, he called Maduro’s 2018 reelection rigged. More than 50 countries, including the United States, recognized Guiadó as the legitimate president and joined him in calling for Maduro to step down and for Venezuela to hold new, free and fair elections. But over the last year during the coronavirus crisis, Maduro has consolidated power, and with Guaidó’s term at the National Assembly over in early January 2021, he seems to have lost momentum in his efforts to force Maduro out.

The conflict in Ethiopia between federal forces and the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) is taking a significant toll on civilian life and “spiraling out of control,” according to UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet. At the same time, U.S. Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD) and Jim Risch (R-ID) introduced a resolution in Congress this week calling on the Trump administration to consider imposing sanctions on political or military officials found responsible for human rights violations in Ethiopia. The U.S. resolution also calls on Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed and the TPLF to cease hostilities, which began on November 4 in the northern region of Tigray. The extent of the atrocities against civilians is not yet known as communications and transportation to the region have been cut off by the government. It is noted that the TPLF had been in power before Abiy Ahmed and refuses to recognize his legitimacy. The TPLF also rejects the government’s decision to postpone national elections to 2021 due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, thousands of Ethiopians are believed to have been killed or displaced to Sudan in the last month. The conundrum for the United States is that Ethiopia is considered an ally in efforts against Al-Qaeda-linked extremists in neighboring Somalia. This is likely to be an issue facing the incoming Biden administration though, as it is unlikely Trump will take action in the waning days of his term.

Hackers believed to be working with Russian intelligence successfully penetrated U.S. cybersecurity firm FireEye and stole the tool kit the firm uses to test client systems for vulnerabilities, which will further enable the perpetrators to carry out attacks on other targets. According to the FBI, the level of sophistication in the attack suggests they were working on behalf of a nation-state, and though there has been no confirmation thus far that Russian intelligence is involved, FBI Russia specialists are handling the case. This is the highest-profile theft of cybersecurity tools since 2016, when a group called ShadowBrokers stole the NSA’s hacking tools and released them online over a series of months. The tools were ultimately used by Russia and North Korea in attacks on U.S. government agencies, hospitals, and other targets. There is some speculation that this most recent attack was retaliatory – FireEye has exposed Russian intelligence involvement in a number of hacking operations over the years, helping to lay the foundation for punitive U.S. actions targeting the units believed to be behind attacks on critical systems and facilities. Competition between the U.S. and Russia in this area is likely to keep intensifying, and the incoming Biden administration will need to develop creative approaches to strengthen our offensive and defensive capacities.