In April 2008, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez dispatched Justice Ministry officials to visit counterparts in the Chinese technology hub of Shenzhen. Their mission, according to a member of the Venezuela delegation, was to learn the workings of China’s national identity card program.
Chávez, a decade into his self-styled socialist revolution, wanted help to provide ID credentials to the millions of Venezuelans who still lacked basic documentation needed for tasks like voting or opening a bank account. Once in Shenzhen, though, the Venezuelans realized a card could do far more than just identify the recipient.
There, at the headquarters of Chinese telecom giant ZTE Corp, they learned how China, using smart cards, was developing a system that would help Beijing track social, political and economic behavior. Using vast databases to store information gathered with the card’s use, a government could monitor everything from a citizen’s personal finances to medical history and voting activity.
“What we saw in China changed everything,” said the member of the Venezuelan delegation, technical advisor Anthony Daquin. His initial amazement, he said, gradually turned to fear that such a system could lead to abuses of privacy by Venezuela’s government. “They were looking to have citizen control.”
The following year, when he raised concerns with Venezuelan officials, Daquin told Reuters, he was detained, beaten and extorted by intelligence agents. They knocked several teeth out with a handgun and accused him of treasonous behavior, Daquin said, prompting him to flee the country. Government spokespeople had no comment on Daquin’s account.
The project languished. But 10 years after the Shenzhen trip, Venezuela is rolling out a new, smart-card ID known as the “carnet de la patria,” or “fatherland card.” The ID transmits data about cardholders to computer servers. The card is increasingly linked by the government to subsidized food, health and other social programs most Venezuelans rely on to survive.
And ZTE, whose role in the fatherland project is detailed here for the first time, is at the heart of the program.
As part of a $70 million government effort to bolster “national security,” Venezuela last year hired ZTE to build a fatherland database and create a mobile payment system for use with the card, according to contracts reviewed by Reuters. A team of ZTE employees is now embedded in a special unit within Cantv, the Venezuelan state telecommunications company that manages the database, according to four current and former Cantv employees.
The fatherland card is troubling some citizens and human-rights groups who believe it is a tool for Chávez’s successor, President Nicolás Maduro, to monitor the populace and allocate scarce resources to his loyalists.
“It’s blackmail,” Héctor Navarro, one of the founders of the ruling Socialist Party and a former minister under Chávez, said of the fatherland program. “Venezuelans with the cards now have more rights than those without.”
In a phone interview, Su Qingfeng, the head of ZTE’s Venezuela unit, confirmed ZTE sold Caracas servers for the database and is developing the mobile payment application. The company, he said, violated no Chinese or local laws and has no role in how Venezuela collects or uses cardholder data.
“We don’t support the government,” he said. “We are just developing our market.”
An economic meltdown in Venezuela is causing hyperinflation, widespread shortages of food and medicines, and a growing exodus of desperate citizens. Maduro has been sanctioned by the United States and is criticized by governments from France to Canada as increasingly autocratic.
In that, critics say, Maduro has an ally. The fatherland card, they argue, illustrates how China, through state-linked companies like ZTE, exports technological know-how that can help like-minded governments track, reward and punish citizens.
The database, according to employees of the card system and screenshots of user data reviewed by Reuters, stores such details as birthdays, family information, employment and income, property owned, medical history, state benefits received, presence on social media, membership of a political party and whether a person voted.
So far, the government’s disclosure of ZTE’s involvement in the fatherland project has been limited to a passing reference in a February 2017 press release that credited the company with helping to “fortify” the underlying database.
Venezuela’s government didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. Nadia Pérez, a spokeswoman for Cantv, the state-run telecoms firm, declined to comment, and Manuel Fernández, the company’s president, didn’t respond to emails or text messages from Reuters. China’s Justice Ministry and its embassy in Caracas didn’t respond to requests for comment. Although ZTE is publicly traded, a Chinese state company is its largest shareholder and the government is a key client.