- The fatherland card, critics argue, illustrates how China, through state-linked companies like ZTE, exports technological know-how that can help like-minded governments track, reward, and punish citizens.
In April 2008, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez dispatched Justice Ministry officials to visit counterparts in the Chinese technology hub of Shenzhen.
Their mission, according to a member of the Venezuela delegation, was to learn the workings of China's national identity card program.
Chavez, a decade into his self-styled socialist revolution, wanted help to provide ID credentials to the millions of Venezuelans who still lacked basic documentation needed for tasks like voting or opening a bank account.
Once in Shenzhen, though, the Venezuelans realized a card could do far more than just identify the recipient.
There, at the headquarters of Chinese telecom giant ZTE Corp, they learned how China, using smart cards, was developing a system that would help Beijing track social, political, and economic behavior.
Using vast databases to store information gathered with the card's use, a government could monitor everything from a citizen's personal finances to medical history and voting activity.
"What we saw in China changed everything," said the member of the Venezuelan delegation, technical advisor Anthony Daquin. His initial amazement, he said, gradually turned to fear that such a system could lead to abuses of privacy by Venezuela's government. "They were looking to have citizen control."
The following year, when he raised concerns with Venezuelan officials, Daquin told Reuters, he was detained, beaten and extorted by intelligence agents. They knocked several teeth out with a handgun and accused him of treasonous behavior, Daquin said, prompting him to flee the country.
But 10 years after the Shenzhen trip, Venezuela is rolling out a new, smart-card ID known as the "carnet de la patria," or "fatherland card."
The ID transmits data about cardholders to computer servers. The card is increasingly linked by the government to subsidized food, health, and other social programs most Venezuelans rely on to survive.
And ZTE, whose role in the fatherland project is detailed here for the first time, is at the heart of the program.
As part of a $70 million government effort to bolster "national security," Venezuela last year hired ZTE to build a fatherland database and create a mobile payment system for use with the card, according to contracts reviewed by Reuters.
A team of ZTE employees is now embedded in a special unit within Cantv, the Venezuelan state telecommunications company that manages the database, according to four current and former Cantv employees.
The fatherland card is troubling some citizens and human-rights groups who believe it is a tool for Chavez's successor, President Nicolas Maduro, to monitor the populace and allocate scarce resources to his loyalists.
"It's blackmail," Hector Navarro, one of the founders of the ruling Socialist Party and a former minister under Chavez, said of the fatherland program. "Venezuelans with the cards now have more rights than those without."
The fatherland card, they argue, illustrates how China, through state-linked companies like ZTE, exports technological know-how that can help like-minded governments track, reward, and punish citizens.
The database, according to employees of the card system and screenshots of user data reviewed by Reuters, stores such details as birthdays, family information, employment and income, property owned, medical history, state benefits received, presence on social media, membership of a political party, and whether a person voted.
"China is in the business of exporting its authoritarianism," US Senator Marco Rubio told Reuters in an email. "The Maduro regime's increasing reliance on ZTE in Venezuela is just the latest example of the threat that Chinese state-directed firms pose to US national security interests."
Maduro for the past year has urged citizens to sign up for the new card, calling it essential to "build the new Venezuela." As many as 18 million people, over half the population, already have, according to government figures.
"With this card, we are going to do everything from now on," Maduro said on state television last December.
To encourage its adoption, the government has granted cash prizes to cardholders for performing civic duties, like rallying voters.