US senators ask White House to probe ZTE work in Venezuela

In its investigation, Reuters found that ZTE Corp helped the Venezuela government build a database that can track citizens' behaviour through a national identity card.
In its investigation, Reuters found that ZTE Corp helped the Venezuela government build a database that can track citizens' behaviour through a national identity card.PHOTO: REUTERS

CARACAS (REUTERS) - Two United States senators on Wednesday (Nov 28) asked the Trump administration to investigate whether Chinese telecommunications company ZTE Corp violated US sanctions by helping Venezuela set up a database that monitors the behaviour of its citizens.

In a letter, Senators Chris Van Hollen and Marco Rubio asked the US secretaries of state, treasury and commerce to determine whether ZTE worked with individuals cited by US sanctions, used US components unlawfully or helped Venezuela's government flout democratic processes or human rights.

The letter follows a Reuters investigation of the database and an associated Venezuelan identity card programme published on Nov 14.

Earlier on Wednesday, Reuters reported the senators' plans to write to the Cabinet officials, citing aides to the two men.

ZTE, which this year paid US$1 billion (S$1.37 billion) to the US government in relation to sanctioned business in Iran and North Korea, did not respond to a request for comment for this story. Venezuela's Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, grappling with hyperinflation and an economy in free fall, has long said that US sanctions are part of an "economic war" by Washington to topple his leftist government.

A spokesman for the US Treasury said the department does not comment on "possible or pending investigations".

Officials at the US State and Commerce departments did not respond to requests for comment early on Wednesday.

Mr Van Hollen, a Democrat, and Mr Rubio, a Republican, have been vocal backers of previous US measures against ZTE.

The company, in which a Chinese state firm is the largest shareholder, is accused by many Western officials of helping China export surveillance tactics and equipment to authoritarian governments around the world.

ZTE has increasingly worked with Venezuela's government in various projects there, mostly in ventures with Compania Anonima Nacional Telefonos de Venezuela, or Cantv, the state telecommunications company.

Many senior Venezuelan officials, including Mr Maduro and Cantv president Manuel Fernandez, have been sanctioned by Washington because of what successive US administrations have deemed authoritative behaviour and human rights violations by the government of the Andean country.

Neither Mr Fernandez nor a Cantv spokesman responded to requests for comment.

In its investigation, Reuters found that ZTE helped Caracas build a database that can track citizens' behaviour through a national identity card.

The ID, the "fatherland card", can compile data including financial and medical histories, usage of social media, political affiliation and whether a person voted.

One area of concern for the senators is whether ZTE installed components made by Dell Technologies Inc in the database.

One document reviewed by Reuters indicated that ZTE used storage units built by the US-based company in equipment it installed for Cantv.

In their letter, the senators asked "whether ZTE violated US export controls with respect to the installation of data storage units built by Dell".

A spokesman for Dell told Reuters it had no record of a sale for that purpose.

The senators also asked the US administration to determine whether ZTE's work in Venezuela breaks the terms of the US$1 billion agreement it reached earlier this year with the Commerce Department related to previous sanctions violations.