In the last decade, Venezuela has quickly become a hub for Russian and Chinese cyber technologies in the Western hemisphere. In an effort to expand its grip on power, the Maduro regime in Caracas has allowed the country to become a laboratory for digital surveillance and authoritarian social control. Moscow and Beijing are thus able to project their global ambitions into the Western hemisphere by sending their cybersecurity know-how and infrastructure to Venezuela. In other words, it’s a win-win exchange for both sides as they carve out an anti-American cyber partnership in Latin America.
The story of Venezuela’s foray into authoritarian cyber technologies began with the founder of the Bolivarian Revolution, self-styled socialist leader Hugo Chavez. In 2008, Chavez sent governmental representatives from Venezuela’s Ministry of Justice to China to learn more about China’s national identity card system. One member of the delegation said, “What we saw in China changed everything.” Under the guise of wanting to expand his country’s access to public services, Chavez became enamored with China’s digital technology and ability to keep track of citizens’ economic and social activities. Chavez deeply admired Beijing’s tracking technology and surveillance mechanisms.
Despite his death in 2013, Chavez’s dystopian vision became a reality in late 2016, when Chinese-style ID cards rolled out under his successor, Nicolas Maduro. A 2018 Reuters investigation revealed that Chinese telecommunications company ZTE Corp directly helped the Venezuelan government construct the databases and identity card program for the country’s new “fatherland card” system. Maduro’s government paid ZTE as part of a $70 million initiative to enhance “national security.” ZTE employees embedded with Venezuela’s state telecom company and worked alongside Venezuelan workers.
According to Reuters, the fatherland card database stores personal identification information necessary for Venezuelan banking services and healthcare, but it also stores details of its users’ political behavior, such as social media activities, political party membership, and voting history. Some critics of Chavismo allege that this card is the beginning of a Chinese-style social credit system in Venezuela. More than 70 percent of Venezuelans now carry the fatherland card, and some reports suggest that those citizens with the digital ID card receive preferential treatment from the central government, such as special access to foodstuffs and subsidy bonuses. Chavez’s cyber legacy lives on in the form of the fatherland card.
Moreover, the Russian government has also assisted the Maduro regime with cybersecurity know-how. In March 2019, Moscow sent around 100 military specialists, including cybersecurity personnel, to Caracas in a likely attempt to bolster the Maduro administration's internal stability and prevent “regime change” from U.S-aligned political actors. A month later, Russian deputy foreign minister Oleg Syromoloto pledged to help Caracas investigate cyber attacks on Venezuela’s electrical grid, which caused nationwide blackouts. Maduro called these cyber attacks the “first war of unconventional dimensions with attacks on public services,” placing blame on Washington.
The exportation of Russian and Chinese surveillance tech to Venezuela should concern U.S policymakers. While much of this technology is seemingly designed to consolidate Maduro’s political power within Venezuelan borders, it could lay the foundation for Russia and China to launch future cyber attacks from Venezuelan networks. Russia has already disguised some of its online disinformation campaigns as Venezuelan in origin. For example, during the Catalan separatist crisis in 2017, only 3 percent of Catalonia-related social media content came from real users outside of Russian and Venezuelan cyber networks. In November 2017, the Spanish newspaper El País concluded that the “Russian network used Venezuelan accounts to deepen the Catalan crisis.”
With its focus on Putin’s war in Ukraine, the Biden administration has underemphasized Latin American affairs, which was on display during the recent Summit of the Americas. In a sign of solidarity with Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, who were excluded from the meeting, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador declined an offer to come to the summit. Since Washington maintains close ties with illiberal regimes in Brazil and El Salvador, the Biden administration’s insistence on democracy promotion is increasingly ringing hollow in Latin America and the Caribbean. Under Trump and now Biden, Washington’s attitude towards hemispheric relations has come off as hegemonic and chauvinistic. Washington must be more flexible and less ideologically rigid in its Latin American policy. For example, the United States could promise to release sanctions and purchase oil from Venezuela if Caracas cuts economic ties to China and Russia. If the United States hopes to prevent growing Chinese and Russian cyber influence in the Western hemisphere, Washington must build long-term economic and cyber links with its partners in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Benjamin R. Young is an assistant professor of homeland security and emergency preparedness in the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of the book Guns, Guerillas, and the Great Leader: North Korea and the Third World, and his writing has appeared in a range of media outlets and peer-reviewed scholarly journals. Follow him on Twitter @DubstepInDPRK.