Democracy’s Digital Battlefront in Venezuela

Essay By
Learn more about Chris Walsh.
Chris Walsh
Deputy Director, Freedom and Democracy
George W. Bush Institute
Rodrigo Diamanti
Guest Author

Nicolás Maduro’s regime underscores how freedom of expression is a powerful tool in the generational struggle for liberty, write Chris Walsh, the Bush Institute’s Deputy Director of Freedom and Democracy, and Rodrigo Diamanti, a Venezuelan dissident who heads A World Without Censorship.

Freedom is a fragile thing and it’s never more than one generation away from extinction. It is not ours by way of inheritance; it must be fought for and defended constantly.

—Ronald Reagan

Nicolás Maduro’s Venezuelan regime underscores just how much freedom of expression is a powerful tool in the generational struggle for liberty. The autocratic leader knows that Venezuelans’ ability to speak freely threatens his attempt to control their society, so he continues to create a climate of fear, silencing political prisoners and the Venezuelan people alike.

A recent United Nations report details how physical violence is a key part of the Maduro government’s stifling of free expression. But the attempt also is manifested in the virtual space through “digital authoritarianism.”

Digital authoritarianism represents a government’s efforts to control its population through technologies like the internet. Authoritarian regimes have a variety of methods at their disposal to poison the free flow of information and communications, too. The list includes blocking access to the internet or surveillance of its usage, censoring content, flooding the information sphere with disinformation, and co-opting social media and other online platforms.

The goal in using these tools is to make citizens conform to the ideology of the state and to destroy faith in democratic principles. Most concerning, though, authoritarian leaders use digital authoritarianism to persecute those who think differently.

Digital authoritarianism represents a government’s efforts to control its population through technologies like the internet. Authoritarian regimes have a variety of methods at their disposal to poison the free flow of information and communications, too.

Digital authoritarianism is a new battleground

External forces are helping Caracas and other autocratic governments in Latin America in this effort. Voice of America (VOA) reports that: “Chinese technology and expertise is making it possible for Venezuela and Cuba to exercise suffocating control over digital communications.”

Washington would be wise to pay attention to this new battleground in the conflict between democratic and authoritarian systems. Venezuela’s descent into outright tyranny after once being a democracy underscores China’s role in the region.

Among other things, Beijing’s support for the Maduro regime has facilitated his government’s ability to digitally track political opponents and silence dissent. Specifically, assistance and expertise from Chinese technology firms are bolstering Venezuela’s capacity for digital authoritarianism. As the VOA details, Caracas has enhanced its surveillance capabilities through infiltration of private email accounts, national ID cards that catalog citizens’ purchases and movements (and reward government loyalists), surveillance camera infrastructure, and facial recognition technology.

These are similar capabilities, as documented by Freedom House and Human Rights Watch, that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been refining for years through its persecution of the Uyghurs. In that sense, Caracas’ efforts to enhance digital repression infrastructure have benefited from Beijing’s genocidal policies in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region.

The Venezuelan state now can augment its persecution of citizens with digital tools that collect as much information as possible on political opponents. The government then uses that data to prevent dissent through intimidation and arbitrary arrests.

Venezuela’s descent into outright tyranny after once being a democracy underscores China’s role in the region. Beijing’s support for the Maduro regime has facilitated his government’s ability to digitally track political opponents and silence dissent.

As one example, the Maduro government has used intelligence and security bodies – such as the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service – to force telephone companies into providing sensitive information about customers’ private conversations. The regime has done so under the pretext of avoiding social unrest.

The telecommunications company Telefónica Venezolana’s last Communications Transparency Report shows the government made requests for data on customer calls and digital messages. In 2021, the Maduro regime made 861,004 such requests, an exponential growth compared to previous years. Additionally, the government’s National Telecommunications Commission (CONATEL) supported 33 requests to block and restrict various web pages.

How Washington should respond

As China and other authoritarian powers inject their influence into Latin America, Washington needs to be more engaged in fostering conditions for stronger democratic institutions, the rule of law, and individual liberty throughout the region.

To this point, a recent report from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights  (OHCHR) recommended that governments adopt meaningful regulations on the export of surveillance technologies known to be associated with violating civil liberties. Moreover, it calls upon states to analyze the potential impact of such technologies upon human rights in recipient nations. States would have to look at such items as how law enforcement officials use the technologies. Governments also would have to assess how they are used within the boundaries of established law and with appropriate oversight.

Most of all, the United States must ensure a robust diplomatic presence in Latin America that partners with governments, local civil society organizations, and populations. The goal should be to promote accountable and transparent governance as well as protecting civil liberties.

Any such efforts should extend to the digital space, where Washington and other democracies must promote a human rights-based agenda for emerging technologies. For example, in line with the OHCHR report, democracies should adopt formal standards for surveillance systems that it uses or exports to other countries. Ideally, these would require strict legal protections for individual rights and privacy prior to usage of the technology.

Access Now, a nonprofit focusing on the intersection of technology and human rights, offers other recommendations that the United States and its democratic allies should consider in their engagement with Latin America. This includes advocating for bans on biometrics, like facial recognition, that are used for large-scale surveillance purposes. Washington could also serve as a regular convener of governments and civil society organizations in the region for consultations on using surveillance technologies and tactics.

Specific to internet freedom, Washington should appoint a special representative on digital authoritarianism responsible for spotlighting the issue and coordinating a response to the global challenge. The representative could start by challenging the narrative championed by some authoritarian powers that democratic values protecting individual privacy are at odds with maintaining security. Simultaneously, Washington must raise the costs for those individuals and entities responsible for human rights abuses and violations of democratic principles.

Most of all, the United States must ensure a robust diplomatic presence in Latin America that partners with governments, local civil society organizations, and populations. The goal should be to promote  accountable and transparent governance as well as protecting civil liberties.

Targeted sanctions imposed through mechanisms like the Global Magnitsky Act should be extended to those exporting and importing digital authoritarianism into Latin America. Likewise, Washington should encourage allies in the region to adopt Magnitsky legislation of their own. This would help close the space where these human rights abusers find financial and recreational safe harbors.

Beyond targeted sanctions, the United States should push for additional penalties that raise costs on governments that abuse these technologies. For example, deny autocrats opportunities for enhancing their international credibility and prestige. American leadership could coordinate with democratic allies to pressure international and regional sports competitions, such as the Olympics or World Cup, to consider boycotting countries like Venezuela that are implicated in systemic human rights abuses.

Similarly, coalitions of free societies could jointly refuse participation in competitions that authoritarian countries host. A significant show of unity could nudge international sports committees away from awarding high-profile games to undeserving actors in the first place.

And, of course, local and international civil society leaders have a role to play in defending liberty in Latin America. They must continue to advocate for freedom of expression and the right to privacy, raise awareness of digital authoritarianism, spotlight wrongdoing by governments and officials, and support people being persecuted.

Democracies cannot allow autocrats to dominate the virtual space. Digital authoritarianism’s threat will not be confined to places like Venezuela or China as internet technology advances and more closely connects the world. As Venezuelan freedom activist Leopoldo Lopez remarked, “Autocracies, dictatorships, they knock on your door. Once they come into your house, into your private life, it might be too late.”