In April 2008, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez 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. Chavez, 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.
A ‘fatherland card’ of their own
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 Chavez’s successor, President Nicolas Maduro, to monitor the populace and allocate scarce resources to his loyalists.
“It’s blackmail,” Hector Navarro, one of the founders of the ruling Socialist Party and a former minister under Chavez, 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.”