How Technology Provides a Chance for Freedom in Venezuela
Some digital tools are being used politically and socially to help citizens thrive under an ongoing crisis that has turned the country into an unlikely spot for innovation
Under the chavista regime, the State has weaponized technology against its citizens for over a decade. The Chávez and Maduro governments have resorted to a wide range of tools for control, like the use of biometric data back in 2015 to restrain access to food and now QR code scanning, with the government’s carnet de la patria to limit the access to food and benefits according to political preferences.
Surveillance over calls on open phone lines to track (and imprison) critics of the government is also common, including the detention of journalists. There’s surveillance over citizens using digital tools from the regime’s allies Russia, China and Iran, specially for blocking and censoring independent media outlets.
One of the times when technology was used against citizens in the most visible way happened around election. In January 2020, Maduro’s regime blocked access to social media for clients of the public internet provider CANTV when the regime was about to install the illegally elected new National Assembly. According to a live report by ONG Netblocks on digital rights, the censorship affected 50% of the connected population.
Giving Tools to Doctors, Nurses and Voters
Meanwhile, the opposition has tried some ways to overcome the digital barriers erected by the regime. One of them was the financial aid project Héroes por la Salud, which sent $300 bonuses to venezuelan health workers during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. The funds, extracted from government accounts blocked overseas, were sent using bitcoin through AirTM, which was then blocked immediately after the announcement. However, the blockade was turned around by teaching the public how to use VPNs.
The most recent example of the use of technology in support of democracy in Venezuela was Juan Guaidó’s Consulta Popular, made through three channels: in-person voting, online voting and for the first time in the country’s political process, a blockchain app.
Ironically, the innovation of adding blockchain as a new voting channel actually is a consequence of an ongoing breakdown of Venezuela’s infrastructure and services.
According to electoral expert César Flores Zavarce, the use of the American app Voatz represents an extra layer of security and transparency in the voting process. As Flores explains, while the use of blockchain is an option rather than a necessity, its capacity to adapt to the needs of voting systems makes it a valuable tool: “The system won’t be more or less secure by the use of blockchain. This simply eases the audit process because of its transparency. The use of blockchain allows us to distribute information and give visibility to it at a manageable cost.”
Given the circumstances where the poll took place, the political process could be labeled as a “unique experience,” as Zavarce explains. “I think this is the first time there’s a political poll with so many channels for voting open at the same time,” he says.
The final results of the consultation showed participation of 30.5% of the voting Venezuelan population in and outside of the country, with over 2.4 million doing so via online. The voting expert also pointed out that this result was possible thanks to the inclusion of digital means to include a wider amount of migrant voters.
Ironically, the innovation of adding blockchain as a new voting channel actually is a consequence of an ongoing breakdown of Venezuela’s infrastructure and services: “We felt that a blockchain app would give more security than online voting,” says Flores. “The poll organizers recognized that in Venezuela not everyone is capable of online voting, so they added this tool. Here, deficiency was the mother of invention.”
On the other hand, the use of data collected from voters has infamously been used to punish those who don’t support the government, affecting especially public employees. This has taken a toll on participation rates in elections, instilling a strong distrust towards a process managed by the State.
“There’s no fear of technology, but there’s fear of the government using it,” Flores states.
Use of Force
Despite the intended sense of control through digital tools, the State isn’t nearly as well equipped to track citizens as it appears to be, as the journalist and cyberactivist Luis Carlos Díaz explains.
“We need to end this notion that states are omnipresent. That’s simply not true.”
According to the journalist, there isn’t enough investment in the regime’s infrastructure to keep tabs on every citizen. One of the biggest dangers, however, is disconnection: “The country has less internet users and people are getting disconnected. There are no statistics on digital alphabetization or internet quality, so we know very little on this matter.”
The main tool of Maduro’s regime, however, isn’t technology, it’s physical force.
Connectivity is a challenge in Venezuela, as internet access has been in a constant decline since 2017. Today, only 34% of the population has a fixed internet connection, according to the Venezuelan Observatory of Public Services. The connectivity operated at a speed of 7,68 mbps by 2019, the second slowest in Latin America.
The main tool of Maduro’s regime, however, isn’t technology, it’s physical force. Rather than having a sophisticated approach in order to maintain control, chavismo has resorted to brutal measures like forced disappearances of random targets that are deemed a threat to the dictatorship.
For example, while I was interviewing Díaz, NGO Convite was sieged by the regime’s Special Actions Forces Unit (FAES) and Convite’s executive director Luis Francisco Cabeza would be detained and the organization’s computers and equipment seized, to “get information on their humanitarian work” under the suspicion of “terrorist financing.”
Díaz explains from his own experience that taking digital safety measures won’t protect you from disproportionated retaliation. However, keeping a safety protocol will protect the information itself and, most importantly, your sources and allies.
Taking Back Control
In Venezuela, common security tools such as VPNs are already known and used to access censored platforms and information, and while Venezuelans remain very active in social media, there’s been a migration to private chats to share information, Díaz explains.
As the cyberactivist says, the safety protocol for journalists, organizations and citizens in Venezuela varies depending on the type of information exchanged. A basic step is to avoid using open phone lines and using encrypted applications like Facebook calls or Signal messages. Erasing chats, videos and pictures once they’ve already served their informative purpose, is highly recommended.
“Privacy in communications is a basic human right. Since governments don’t guarantee this, citizens have the right to make it happen on their own,” Díaz stated.
As for the actual impact of technology in Venezuelan politics to fight the regime, the national sentiment demands more real-life action than digital efforts.
According to politologist Colette Capriles, while the use of the internet is absolutely necessary to keep the political conversation going, there’s a disbalance of efforts from an opposition who relies too much on social media:
“There’s a huge demand from the population and political activists for opposition leaders to let go of social media and go back to the 1.0 world. The great demand is, ‘Get out of Twitter, get out of Zoom!’”
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