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Huawei in Caracas and Other Developments: Cybersecurity in Venezuela Today

Map of Venezuela’s March 2019 Power Outage

Map of Venezuela’s March 2019 Power Outage

Venezuela is in the midst of a continuous and disastrous sociopolitical collapse. Corruption and mismanagement has severely damaged basic commerce for the majority of the population and the efficacy of the government diminishes to dangerously low levels each day. Such a cancer has led to a perpetual cycle of suffering and fleeing from the Venezuelan people and a difficult situation to repair in the elite levels of society.

All of this comes at a time when the world is rapidly changing. In addition to other developments, the rise and ubiquity of information communication technologies (ICT) has revolutionized how global societies interact and live. Here too the Venezuelan case is one of suffering, despair, and disintegration as even the most “basic” of technological services remains a struggle for authorities (namely the state) to provide.

In this post, I will briefly examine the Venezuela situation from a cyber perspective, with an emphasis on security, conflict, collaboration, and communication. It is clear from such an analysis that the digital dilemmas facing Venezuela today are aligned with its offline reality while social media provides an essential platform for citizens to cope.

The State of Cyber in Maduro’s Venezuela

Like most aspects of the country, the state of cyber capabilities in today’s Venezuela is dominated by one featuring characteristic: poor infrastructure and management. Venezuela struggles mightily to provide the level of service expected from most internet users (particularly in developed countries). Surfing speeds are incredibly slow and are often impacted by periodic censorship, which slows connections down further; this particularly occurs when there is an event such as an opposition leadership speech which the authorities do not want Venezuelans to witness. Overall, this situation reflects the reality that the Venezuelan state may be overwhelmed by providing Internet access to its people given its burden of holding 65% of all provider subscriptions and 80% of all connections in the country, all while meticulously curating and censoring content to ensure continued political support for the Maduro regime.

The rise of social media and mobiles have also had a big impact on the Venezuelan populace. Social media has emerged as the public square to discuss potentially sensitive topics on politics, economics, and daily commerce; in a land routinely affected by product and food shortages this technology has proven to be a lifeline for Venezuelans looking to barter for their survival. Affordable cell phones have additionally provided the conduit for accessing social media as well as maintaining the communal bonds of family and nation across borders and into the refugee communities spread across the region and the world.

Assistance from Key Allies

As part of his strategy to maintain power, President Nicolas Maduro has relied on the support of two major allies, Russia and China, in providing the materials and expertise necessary to prevent his regime from completely collapsing. Each of these allies has been influential in the cyber and technology realms, further showing the unity of online and offline goals for the current Venezuelan regime.

Russia

The Russians have sent military personnel to Venezuela, including a contingent of “cybersecurity” experts. These professionals were likely sent to directly protect Venezuela’s aging and decrepit digital infrastructure in response to an alleged cyber attack on Venezuela’s power grid from the US (more on this below).

China

Although China has informally been in touch with the Guaido opposition, it maintains its official support of Maduro as head of Venezuela according to its overarching foreign policy dictating non-interference in other countries’ affairs. China’s government has offered to help rebuild Venezuela’s weak power grid after a major outage in March. At the same time, Maduro has announced greater investment and collaboration in Huawei (one of China’s national technology champion companies) within Venezuela with the expressed goal of expanding 4G cellular coverage across the entire country. For China, these developments come as citizens express greater frustrations with supporting regimes like Venezuela that have not paid back their initial loans (Venezuela currently owes China $20 billion) and may represent attempts to recoup Chinese investments in the country over the short to medium term.

Is There Serious Online Conflict?

The March blackout which roiled Venezuela is one of debatable origin. Maduro is convinced that it is a cyberattack from the United States, a convenient pinning of blame on the regime’s most reliable enemy/scapegoat. Numerous cybersecurity experts, on the other hand, blame the disaster on corruption, mismanagement, and the deteriorating conditions of equipment on the national grid. The US in particular is also more known for cyber activities in the financial and Internet realms as opposed to electricity.

Supporting Maduro’s claim is the fact that the timing of the blackout was one consistent with commonly observed cyberattacking methods; in short, a rush hour blackout ensured maximum damage and upheaval to society as it tried to cope with a serious impediment. At the same time, it is likely that the US had prior access to the grid and could exploit it as a means of covert warfare. But did it really?

The one fact that makes me reconsider this situation - and the potential that a cyber war is afoot - is that the Russians (previous victims of US cyberattacks) sent some of their own cybersecurity specialists to help the Venezuelans with their cyber infrastructure. I think we may need to learn more about activities that emerge going forward before making a definitive determination about this particular situation. In any case, this example clearly shows that cybersecurity is an important matter for the Venezuelan regime and that it is preparing for digital war in order to preserve itself.

What It All Means

The close alignment between Venezuela’s offline turmoil and online instability is striking and suggests that digital concerns will be highly prioritized by both regime and opposition as their tussle continues. Economically speaking, the introduction and deepening penetration of allied technologies and know how may also imprint large amounts of Russian and Chinese influence into Venezuelan society and culture; we are already seeing this with the introduction of Huawei phones in Venezuela, which due to a dispute with Google may no longer support Gsuite products and platforms. Socially speaking, the large diaspora being constructed by the many who have left the country are more connected than ever before and could potentially form a powerful interest group thanks to the power of mobiles and social media.

Yet we’ve seen from the example of the Arab Spring that ICT alone cannot permanently topple governments and we’ve seen from the example of China’s comprehensive Internet policy book that authoritarians can remain in power in the midst of the social media age. The real question is: does this model apply to Maduro? Answering that questions requires more observation into how Venezuela continues to descend economically and the path taken by the Guaido-led opposition. As a result, Venezuela is one of the most important countries to watch today, for its future may also lend meaningful knowledge in forecasting the declines and transitions of other states in crisis.

William VogtComment