Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s crackdown on democracy in Venezuela has used technology to implement social control mechanisms and to thwart freedom of expression on the Internet. Critics have pointed out that the Venezuelan government aims to emulate the surveillance state prevailing in China, and which China ardently exported this model in Venezuela.
In June of this year, a report by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association to the United Nations Human Rights Council noted that the Venezuelan government has restricted access to Twitter, Facebook and Instagram in the context of the events. The Freedom of the Net A report published by Freedom House considers Venezuela “not free”.
In this regard, China’s involvement in the development of mechanisms used to undermine democracy and human rights in Venezuela becomes of particular interest when discussing the nature of bilateral relations. For years, activists and journalists pointed out that the government is improving in implementing the same mechanisms seen in China to limit and even block Internet access.
When President Hugo Chavez came to power more than 20 years ago, Venezuela became one of China’s staunchest allies in the region. During these two decades, countries have shared a story anti-imperialism and resistance to the liberal international order led by the United States. Venezuela has become the beneficiary of almost half of the ready made by China in Latin America.
In social and digital media, there is an ongoing discussion about the ultimate goals of the “comprehensive strategic partnership” promoted by the two governments. Some observers consider that it is only economic and only exists because China perceives a direct economic benefit. For others, Venezuela is a pawn in China’s larger goal of challenging US power, and therefore China. Support of the Maduro government is also a geopolitics strategy.
The specifics of China’s alleged participation in these undemocratic practices in Venezuela are, however, a puzzle. little official information exists on bilateral agreements between countries from 2000 to 2020. Freelance journalists and civil society organizations have undertaken to bring together some critical aspects and implications of these agreements, but details are scarce.
As repression and censorship increase in Venezuela, there is growing interest in the activities of a Chinese company: the state-owned China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation (CEIEC), one of the main companies responsible for supplying the government Venezuelan digital means to silence and persecute its detractors.
But CEIEC is no ordinary tech company. It is one of the the biggest military contractors in China and one of the few defense companies authorized by the Chinese government to sell abroad.
CEIEC in Venezuela: a tradition of opaque companies
CEIEC is not new to doing business with the Venezuelan government. In 2005 and 2014, Venezuela acquired radar and command posts manufactured by the company under a series of agreements on defense cooperation.
According to its webpage, CEIEC helps clients meet the challenges of “sovereign threat, natural disaster, social crisis and economic development” by providing them with software, equipment and infrastructure for defense, public security and digital identity. In 2019, it had 24 branches abroad and a presence in 160 “countries and regions”.
In 2013, Venezuela paid the USD 1 billion company to develop a public safety system that included the installation 30,000 security cameras and national, regional and municipal command centers interconnected by independent telecommunications systems. The project aimed to support a government’s initiative to tackle one of the highest crime rates in the world. This failed to achieve its objectives, among other things, because the agreement was not fully implemented.
In 2016, CEIEC provided the Venezuelan government with a Surveillance system for the penitentiary system which aimed to “guarantee security, order, discipline and human rights” in Venezuelan prisons.
More recent agreements in the telecommunications sector are even more difficult to pin down, signaling that they can be very sensitive for both countries.
In November 2020, the US Treasury Department, through its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), sanctioned CEIEC for helping the Maduro government undermine democracy, including “efforts to restrict internet service and conduct digital surveillance and cyber operations against political opponents”. According to OFAC, CEIEC provided Venezuela with the marketed version of “Large firewall,“a nationwide filtering system and a set of protocols adopted by Beijing that prevent politically sensitive content from entering the national network.
The sanctions sparked a discussion about the nature of CEIEC’s operations in Venezuela, and the lack of official information has been fertile ground for the emergence of various theories. This is not the first time that the United States has imposed coercive measures on the CEIEC. Between 2006 and 2008, the US State Department sanctioned the company for violations of the Iranian, North Korean and Syrian non-proliferation law which aims to prevent the three countries from acquiring equipment or technologies that could be used for the development of weapons of mass destruction or cruise. or ballistic missile systems.
In 2020, during an interview on a popular online show, Guillaume Peña, a Caracas-based telecommunications and ICT journalist, said CEIEC exports and manages software that collects big data on Venezuelans, which helps the government exercise social control through approaches such as the ‘access to health care and essential government subsidies. Two years earlier, another Chinese company, the ZTE Company, has come under public scrutiny for its important role in helping the government develop this system.
According to Peña, CEIEC has also provided technical assistance to the Venezuelan government to spy on journalists and opposition leaders, reduce internet speeds and block digital broadcasts.
A critical journalist, Ibéyise Pacheco, attributes to the CEIEC an even more obscure role. She wrote in an April 2021 opinion piece in Diario Las Americas that the Chinese company has taken control of the Venezuelan state-owned telecommunications company, CANTV (Compañía Anónima Nacional de Teléfonos de Venezuela) – the main supplier of Internet access from Venezuela – and from its headquarters in Caracas. sabotage and attempted piracy of military software used by countries hostile to the Venezuelan government.
For its part – without providing any information on CEIEC’s activities in Venezuela – the Venezuelan government sentenced sanctions, claiming that the United States attacked an international company that “provided services” to Venezuela. Other government officials and pro-government media implied that the sanctions would affect internet access in the country, which is already among the the slowest in the world. According to this account, the sanctions are an attempt to sabotage a company that intends to improve Internet access for Venezuelans.
Independent experts have demystified this claim, noting that the CEIEC does not provide telecommunications equipment directly to the Venezuelan public and that its projects are not related to the Internet infrastructure.
Most mentions of CEIEC and Venezuela in chinese media concern US sanctions and the reaction of the Chinese government, which critical the measure as interference in internal affairs and undue coercion on Venezuelan and Chinese companies.
China’s growing influence on telecommunications
According to a report published by the Venezuelan chapter of Transparency International on the bilateral China-Venezuela agreements of the last two decades, telecommunications is the second sector with the largest share of agreements at 51, only after the production of hydrocarbons in Venezuela. The launch of Three and eventually four satellites, and projects to bring 5G technology in Venezuela stand out among the projects funded in this cooperative framework.
Considering the decline of the Venezuelan state-owned telecommunications company CANTV due to corruption, mismanagement and lack of investment, journalists and social media users speculated whether the company was or would be acquired by Chinese investors to, in principle, improve the provision of Internet access. Among the companies mentioned are Huawei and CEIEC.
With the lack of transparency surrounding China’s relationship with Venezuela, it is difficult to confirm what role China plays in telecommunications in Venezuela and how this affects the digital rights and freedom of expression of Venezuelans.
This story is part of a Civic Media Observatory investigates competing narratives of China’s Belt and Road Initiative and explores how societies and communities have different perceptions of the potential advantages and disadvantages of China-led development. To learn more about this project and its methods, Click here.