China helped Nicolás Maduro’s regime develop the Fatherland Card technological platform, as well as the database containing the confidential data of this national smart-ID card. The goal is to control access to food and build a system to supervise people’s social, political, and economic behavior.
“This is the latest expression of an initiative that dates back to 2004, which could be seen as the progressive refining of a tool for government control of Venezuelan citizens’ lives,” a sociology professor at the Central University of Venezuela, told Diálogo. “The Fatherland Card is the electronic key to a social and political surveillance system for the current government.”
According to the professor, in February 2017, Venezuela and China signed 22 strategic agreements for more than $2 billion, which included the development of the national card. Venezuela’s national telecommunications company CANTV teamed up with Chinese telecom giant ZTE to build the ID cards. “China is the country that makes the most progress in social and political surveillance systems,” he said.
ZTE developed the smart cards issued as part of China’s social credit system, which punishes citizens who don’t conform to the official doctrine. ZTE also provides services to other governments, such as Iran and North Korea, including systems to intercept citizens’ communications, indicated the Organization of American States (OAS) in its March 2019 Preliminary Report on the Crisis of Venezuelan Migrants and Refugees in the Region.
The OAS report states that imposing the Fatherland Card to Venezuelans is a key factor behind their exodus. The use of methods to exercise social control and limit individual freedom is a common characteristic of authoritarian regimes.
“There is increasing concern in the United States and different areas at the international level about the Chinese government’s role in generating intelligence and information through technology,” Yadira Gálvez, a scholar at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, told Diálogo. “Chinese companies, private in theory, are linked to or subsidized by the Chinese government. They seek to help their government increase its influence in other regions.”
Clinging to power
Maduro introduced the Fatherland Card in December 2016. The card was initially meant to ration and distribute food the government sold, but in reality serves as a tool to carry out political persecution and segregation. The ID card use so-called Quick Response, or QR codes, to record activities of those who benefit from social programs created during the Hugo Chávez presidency, the Venezuelan government told the press. More than 18 million Venezuelans have the ID credential, which can be scanned with a smartphone.
“Although all countries should have databases containing information about their citizens, China’s support for Maduro’s regime with all the Chinese expertise in espionage, is alarming,” Gálvez said. “Maduro could use this tool to guarantee [the population’s] support for his project and use the database to define communication campaigns and shape attitudes.”
According to the 2017 report, The Revolutionary Apartheid, from nongovernmental organization Transparencia Venezolana, the card violates the rights of Venezuelans, such as the right to food and health. The card, the report indicates, is required to access public services, enroll in schools, and carry out administrative formalities, from records procedures to withdrawing cash at a public bank.
“This tool wasn’t designed to make social welfare universal. It’s designed for social control from this type of government [Venezuela and China] to ensure their continued stay in power,” said Gálvez. “This is a system for control and surveillance developed on Venezuelan soil with Chinese technology, so that Maduro’s government can keep its interests and benefits in the dark,” the professor added.
In recent years, Venezuela used different tools to control the population, such as the Tascón List (blacklist), used to discriminate against public officials fired for supporting the recall referendum against Chávez. Another tool, the Good Living Card, was used to obtain basic goods. The so-called Safe Supply Card enabled people to buy products in all government sales networks.
“We don’t know who is in charge of the Fatherland Card’s database, nor the economic resources allocated, which promotes a lack of transparency and, as such, an important source of corruption,” said the professor. “During the 2018 presidential elections, the card was used to request government benefits [with] the fear to be threatened.”
Chinese laws do not abide by international privacy rules established in the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Surveillance systems that rely on equipment manufactured in China could present opportunities for Chinese intelligence operations or provide a powerful tool for authoritarian governments to maintain total control over their citizens. In the case of Venezuela, Chinese control is already a reality.