My Socialist Hell: Venezuela’s Mass Wiretapping Campaign to Silence Dissent

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro makes statements during a joint press conference with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (not seen) after the bilateral and inter-delegation meetings in Ankara, Turkiye on June 08, 2022. (Photo by Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Aytac Unal/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

CARACAS, Venezuela – Jesús Faría, Venezuelan socialist party lawmaker, admitted on July 5 — Venezuela’s Independence Day — that the Maduro regime actively engages in internet censorship by brazenly reminding Venezuelans, “you can’t say whatever you like.”

These statements, coupled with evidence of mass communications wiretapping happening in Venezuela, serve as a reminder that no one is safe to freely speak here and that expressing dissent against the regime and its authorities can come with a huge price.

At the head of the socialist regime’s censorship and privacy-breaching framework is the National Commission of Telecommunications (Conatel), the entity that regulates all telecommunications in the country, be it phone, internet, and media.

Conatel has blocked access to dozens of dissenting websites, has forced local TV channels into self-censorship, has penalized political satire, neutered newspapers, closed more than 190 radio stations and taken shows off air, and has ordered private phone carriers to engage in mass surveillance and wiretapping of phone communications to curb dissent.

Mass-scale phone surveillance

Having lived two thirds of my life under chavismo and lived through the rise of Hugo Chávez’s “Bolivarian Revolution,” I witnessed the constant presence of an unproven fear among friends and family most often expressed with the phrase, “you cannot say that over the phone.” It was a reference to the regime’s alleged — but always unconfirmed — wiretapping of phone conversations.

At first, in the first half of the 2000s, I remember it being a sort of playful urban legend — but with time, and, as the Socialist Party cemented its grip on Venezuela, what was once a myth became a reality with proven evidence.

There are three main cell phone carriers currently operating in Venezuela: Movistar, owned by the Spanish Telefonica group; Digitel, owned by the corporate group Grupo Televenco; and Movilnet, a subsidiary of CANTV, the country’s largest phone and internet service provider. The Venezuelan regime nationalized CANTV in 2007.

Evidence of the socialist regime’s mass phone surveillance can be found in Telefonica’s 2021 transparency report, where it details that, at the request of the Venezuelan regime and Conatel, it has intercepted the communications of more than 1.5 million out of its 7.8 million subscribers in Venezuela. That means more than one in five Movistar cell phone users in Venezuela have been subject to having their phone calls, text messages, and mobile internet tapped, or have had their location revealed through the phone’s network.

The other two cell phone carriers in Venezuela (Digitel and Movilnet) do not publish similar transparency data — but since Movilnet is owned by the socialist regime it is safe to assume that it is just as unsafe, if not more.

In the past, the regime has used its phone surveillance apparatus to leak phone recordings of dissenting politicians as they saw fit to discredit or undermine opponents. Sometimes, they have presented them as “proof” of “ultra-right-wing plots” against the Maduro regime or they have been purportedly leaked to sow cracks within the Venezuelan opposition.

As a longtime subscriber of Movistar, I’ve always been aware that my cell phone calls have no guarantee of being safe, so I’ve treated them as such. I have no way to personally ascertain if I’m part of that 20 percent of wiretapped Movistar users, so try my best to keep the content of my phone calls as normal and “clean” as possible, using alternate methods of communication for more sensitive matters — so, in the event that I’ve had my phone calls recorded, I hope they’ve learned how to deal with certain computer issues that I’ve helped people solve over the phone.

Internet censorship

With traditional forms of media neutered and forced into self-censorship, the internet remains as the main way for Venezuelans to inform and stay informed, but it is not without its risks.

The socialist regime maintains a technical monopoly on internet access in the country through CANTV. Many, for the lack of alternatives, have no choice but to use CANTV and its obsolete technology as their internet service provider. The service is as corrupt as the rest of the country’s public offices, and people often have to pay high fees under the table just to get service back — I’d know, since I found myself having to pay $50 in cash in November 2021 so that I could get back online.

I always take necessary precautions when using CANTV’s internet service, using VPN services to add an extra layer of security and to bypass the ever-growing list of banned websites in the country. VE sin Filtro, a project dedicated to informing people about internet censorship in Venezuela and teaching them how to overcome it, identified 59 websites blocked in Venezuela in 2021 and 68 blocked internet domains, of which 45 belong to media outlets and eight to websites of a “political nature.” The regime also forces private internet providers to ban websites on demand.

As if holding rigged elections was not enough of a guarantee for the socialist regime, they have also blocked access to pro-opposition websites during electoral campaign times. Access to YouTube and other social media has been surgically blocked in the past whenever the Venezuelan opposition or President Juan Guaidó has given a speech. With Guaidó and the opposition plunging further into irrelevance, however, the Maduro regime has apparently not felt the need to repeat this tactic in recent times.

The most dangerous threat that Venezuelans face online is the country’s anti-hate speech law, which can net up to 20 years in prison for those found guilty of “hate speech,” an ambiguous term that the socialist party interprets at will. As such, one must tread carefully with what you type or say online here. Voice of America recently reported the tale of “Yonh,” a recent victim of the socialist regime’s hate speech law whose only crime was to privately insult the Bolivarian National Guard through WhatsApp after members of the National Guard closed his workplace.

While the socialist regime has a near monopoly on internet access, it has recently allowed new private service providers to operate in the country. These providers, however, are way out of reach of the pockets of many. As of early this year, and after 20 years of using CANTV, I finally was able to get a new Internet Service Provider. It’s not the best, and it’s rather expensive for what it is, but it sure beats having to deal with CANTV.

Even so, just because it is a private service, I don’t lower my guard, so to speak. I still take my own set of precautions to stay safe online within these borders because, at the end of the day, it is the socialist regime that signs off the operating licenses for these new Internet Services Providers.

Christian K. Caruzo is a Venezuelan writer and documents life under socialism. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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