In 2007 Hugo Chavez nationalised CANTV, Venezuela’s primary telecoms provider. Prior to its nationalisation CANTV had a reputation as South America’s leading telecoms operator. The company utilised the latest equipment, paid staff well, and trained staff thoroughly. However, the nationalisation has had a disastrous effect on CANTV. Today the network is falling apart. State imposed price controls have crippled the company’s ability to generate sufficient revenues to finance its operations. Additionally, investment in new technology has ceased and many skilled staff have left the company.
An in-depth investigation by Reuters has revealed that to pay its employees CANTV has to seek funds every month from the Venezuelan Central Bank. Wage levels are below $8 a month and pay often arrives late. The President of the Fetratel union, Jose David Mora, has written to employees saying that CANTV cannot obtain new equipment because of a lack of foreign currency and complaining that “there is total impunity for those who have bled the company dry.” Skilled employees have left and have been replaced by unqualified supporters of the ruling Socialist Party.
Maintenance has ground to a halt. Vehicles sit rusting because the company cannot afford to replace missing parts. Servers are no longer upgraded, and the fibre optic network is not supported by maintenance teams. While consumers find it very frustrating when they no longer have phone service or cannot use online services, the impact on Venezuelan businesses has been far more severe. Being unable to communicate with their customers or suppliers is a death sentence for many.
Price controls are also causing severe issues for the mobile networks. Movistar’s top mobile data plan cannot be sold in Venezuela for more than $0.15 cents, while in next-door Colombia a similar Movistar plan costs $17. Mobile networks cannot generate enough revenues to maintain their systems, or to replace network parts stolen by Venezuelans desperate to feed their families. Over 2,000 of the 6,000 cellular antennae in Venezuela have been attacked by thieves over the past three years. As a result of these problems many towns do not have cellular signal.
However, for the Venezuelan regime telecoms is more important as a means of control rather than communication. It speaks volumes that the person Chavez put in charge of CANTV was General Henry de Rangel Silva, head of the intelligence service (also sanctioned by the US for drug trafficking). The Chinese telecoms operator ZTE has helped the regime build a citizen control system based around a new, ID smart-card known as the “carnet de la patria,” or “fatherland card”. This card transmits data about cardholders to computer servers at CANTV, the manager of the database. Venezuelans need the card to receive state benefits such as pensions, food baskets, and subsidised petrol. This year pensioners have been protesting about the card restricting access to their pensions.
The system is also used by the regime to support its election-rigging activities. Voters are encouraged to scan their cards when voting and those doing so then receive messages thanking them for voting for Maduro. Agents of the state are telling people that the system knows how they voted. The regime is focused on controlling its citizens through this sinister programme, even while the basic communication system falls apart. Indeed, that angry citizens are increasingly unable to communicate with one another is likely regarded as a good thing by regime leaders.
While a free press is often championed as the basis of a free society, the freedom to communicate is far more important. Without communications that are reliable and free from surveillance, Venezuelans are unable to escape economic turmoil and political repression.
More information on the Venezuela Campaign can be found on their website.