The US Treasury Department sanctioned the China National Electronics Import & Export Corporation, or CEIEC, for giving Maduro a tech edge on the opposition that coincided with a period of crimes against humanity unheard of in Venezuelan history: since 2013 when CEIEC and Maduro began working together, egregious and varied violations, including extrajudicial executions, torture and systematic rape of civilians and opposition elected officials alike, have taken place.
CEIEC is also the company that Spanish newspaper Cambio 16 said received $1.08 billion from Maduro in exchange for surveillance technology. CEIEC used the funds to be the implementation of SIMA, an integrated monitoring and assistance system used for espionage, tracking and surveillance of opposition targets, in 2013, the year Maduro first took over in hotly contested, controversial elections.
“Today, the US Department of the Treasury Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated CEIEC for supporting the illegitimate efforts of the Maduro regime to undermine democracy in Venezuela, including its efforts to restrict internet service and conduct digital surveillance and cyber operations against political opponents. Chinese technology companies, including CEIEC, continue to challenge democratic values of freedom and transparency by developing and exporting tools to monitor, censor, and surveil activities of the citizens on the internet,” Treasury wrote on Monday.
Dissident Army General of the Maduro regime, Manuel Christopher Figuera said in 2019 after arriving in Washington that Maduro would demand of him real-rime whereabouts and info of up to 40 high-ranking opposition elements at any given time. Such a request, surveillance experts told El Pitazo that year, can only be met using advanced satellite and cellphone tracking of individuals.
“The illegitimate regime of Maduro, reliance on entities like CEIEC to advance its authoritarian agenda further illustrates the prioritization of power over democratic values and processes,” Secretary Steven T. Mnuchin quoted as saying.
“The United States will not hesitate to target anyone helping to suppress the democratic will of the Venezuelan people and others around the world.”
The US sanctions and the Spanish media had coverage almost everything that known of the relationship between Maduro and his Chinese allies. From the rumored use of two Chinese-built Venezuelan satellites for illegal surveillance of the opposition to the involvement of Chinese tech giant ZTE in the development of the GPS-enabled to the Carné de la Patria, a polemical social-control instrument similar to a chip-enabled credit card.
China and surveillance
In 2019, Venezuelan tech industry sources in Caracas told El Pitazo that China was heavily involved in opposition surveillance, using everything from internet-based espionage to cellphone tracking by satellites and even street cameras enabled with new, state of the art technology. However, back then, only ZTE and Huawei got mentioned as suspects.
The regime has for years been using more traditional methods of censorship and repression, according to the United Nations, which designated a special fact-finding mission for Venezuela, and the International Criminal Court.
The implementation of SIMA was directed on the Venezuelan side by then interior minister Miguel Rodriguez Torres, a military officer who turned his back on Maduro and is now in prison. The system included a national command, control, and communications center, seven regional command, control, and communications centers, and 32 municipal and parish command centers, all interconnected with independent telecommunications systems.
The Chinese firm tried to implement a similar system in Ecuador under fellow leftist President Rafael Correa but, the deal fell to jell when Correa lost the presidency: he is now a fugitive in Europe.
The command centers would connect more than 210 community police stations and get installed more than 30,000 cameras, sensors, devices, and information processing centers, Cambio 16 reported quoting from Venezuelan Interior Minister documents. CEIEC also implemented a surveillance system in notoriously dangerous jails in Venezuela.
CEIEC was sanctioned by Treasury “for having assisted, sponsored, or provided financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, actions or policies that undermine democratic processes or institutions.”
“Non-democratic governments use Chinese-exported technologies such as those CEIEC has provided to repress political dissent within their borders. CEIEC has been supporting the Maduro regime malicious cyber efforts since 2017,” stated Treasury, while Cambio 16 and other sources reported the two have been collaborating since at least 2013.
However, as violent anti-Maduro protests (and repression) peaked in 2017, it is conceivable that the spying-tech exchange between China and the regime also peaked.
“The CEIEC has provided software, training, and technical expertise to Venezuela government entities, which got used against the people of Venezuela. CEIEC provides cyber support and technical experts to state-run telecommunications provider Venezuelan National Telephone Company (CANTV), which controls 70% of internet service in all of Venezuela. The suite of software and hardware that CEIEC provided Venezuela is a commercialized version of the Chinese Great Firewall. The Great Firewall is the nationwide system in China of blocks and filters, used to maintain strict online censorship, control the information that Chinese citizens can access outside the country, and prevent the internal dissemination of content deemed undesirable by political leadership,” Treasury explained.
The US offered examples of how CEIEC cyber-efforts amplified the real-world human rights violations of Maduro.
“The Maduro regime has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to suppress the democratic rights of its citizen, intimidate them from expressing their political views, or overwhelm their voices using technology-enabled means, as buttressed by CEIEC. Independent web media in Venezuela are frequently blocked. Additionally, live-streamed speeches by the Interim Government are routinely blocked. On January 5, 2020, CANTV restricted access to social media on the same day as a leadership vote in the National Assembly, while security forces blocked lawmakers and media from accessing the premises. On April 30, 2019, during a popular uprising against the Maduro regime, Venezuelan citizens experienced power failures and weak or lost cellphone signals, leading to an information blackout. In February 2019, the Interim Government created a website for volunteers to participate in the delivery of international humanitarian aid. CANTV manipulated the Domain Name System to redirect visitors to a fake website designed to phish personal information of the visitors.”