Venezuela Zona Gris

The Battle for the Narrative

Maduro against the people (II)

Cyberspace is the new arena and control of the story is the objective. Russia and China have become powerfully equipped to manipulate information and impose the truth that suits them by means of an efficient narrative. Maduro -with powerful advisors- does the same. This investigation is available at

Lawrence Freedman, famous professor emeritus of war studies, recounts in his book “Future Warfare” how the Russians quickly understood that effectiveness over conflict was superior when it was combined with information. “The Russians began to invest in information warfare that required knowledge of engineering, computer science and electronics, and also of the cognition of the population, understood as propaganda.  Then they delved into how to shape the attitude of the population by means of new technologies”.

Lawrence Freedman, famous professor emeritus of war studies, recounts in his book “Future Warfare” how the Russians quickly understood that effectiveness over conflict was superior when it was combined with information. “The Russians began to invest in information warfare that required knowledge of engineering, computer science and electronics, and also of the cognition of the population, understood as propaganda.  Then they delved into how to shape the attitude of the population by means of new technologies”.

They took full advantage of the high level of interconnections and also the possibility of swarming to maintain cohesion by establishing a strong set of social ties.  As a result, they worked on the construction of the narrative, aware that it not only gave meaning to events but it could shape convenient responses.

Others joined this initiative.  Some theorists consider that the ambiguity of the Gray Zone makes it easier for actors to adopt multidimensional and aggressive strategies for the control of the narrative.  A study by Oxford University showed that at least 70 countries conducted public opinion manipulation campaigns for political purposes through social media in 2019 (56 of them through Facebook).  These actors would be making use of the so-called computational propaganda, using algorithms, automation tools, and big data.  According to the study, the most active States were China, India, Iran, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Venezuela.

Russia and Venezuela

Russia has not limited business with Venezuela to arms and oil.  The closeness with the Maduro regime expresses its clear geopolitical interest and has been comfortably welcomed in the privileged Venezuelan cyberspace.

The Russians have made a lot of progress in this field in the last three years. After the drone attack on August 4, 2018, Maduro became easy prey for whoever knew how to exploit his paranoia. This was relatively simple for the Russians it was relatively straightforward. They took advantage of the political ties clinging to arms assistance to offer a comprehensive security plan. Physically, they positioned themselves next to the bunker where Maduro took refuge after the attack. The bunker is located in a military zone at the foot of a small mountain in the area of Manzanares (Baruta Municipality), next to Fuerte Tiuna. The selected site only required the purchase of several houses around it and the Russians would be in charge of monitoring the spectrum.

The Russian team was quickly reinforced.  In two years they had the design of a complex plan that was completed in December 2020, when between the 24th and the 27th, 56 professionals arrived to join 120 others who were already in different areas of the country.  Most of the members of the new team of Russians were experts in the areas of communications, cyber defense, aerospace defense, and strategic intelligence.  The rest was distributed in support areas in the interior of the country.

In cyber defense, Moscow has been leading Venezuela by the hand.  Intelligence sources claim that the Russians supervise in detail the policy in this matter within the Bolivarian National Armed Forces, FANB.  A confidential document shared by a military source reveals part of a plan activated as of March 2, 2020 by the Strategic Operational Command in the Integral Strategic Defense Regions, REDI, of the Venezuelan Armed Forces throughout the country.  The seemingly routine document reveals how information transmitted by the FANB can also be monitored by the Kremlin.  Three weeks before this instruction, on February 7, Nicolás Maduro received in Miraflores the Russian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Serguéi Lavrov.

The instruction is signed by Rear Admiral César Martínez Salazar as Director of Cyber Defense of the Central REDI, from Yaguain Carabobo State. It refers to the organization needed for creating the “Red Centauro 2.0” and “Red Sucre 3.0” of social media, “a new defensive and offensive strategy”.  The text describes this situation: “(…) it is evident that all information and disinformation is available twenty-four (24) hours a day in social media and that this is the new scenario present in the war in recent years.  Cyber defense becomes essential when the use of weapons alone does not ensure the success of the mission, so the aim is to minimize human and material losses (…)”.

The speech copies the jargon of chavismo: the United States is guilty “of the unusual and extraordinary threat to security”.  It specifies in detail the roles of account operators in social media such as Instagram, Facebook and Twitter that will make up “the territorial social media system”, and it also informs on how the rules in the media can (and should) be circumvented: “by creating fake names, simulating genders or psychological profiles”.  The instruction specifies that it is the responsibility of the director to launch attacks against the reputation of opponents.

Russia Today (RT) Gains Ground in the Region

In Europe there was a debate in 2019 that evidenced concern about the lead that Russia has taken by making use of new technologies and propaganda disguised as information.  The growth and effectiveness of Russia Today, a TV network that subtly manages its pro-Russian position, which follows an apparent general guideline and efficiently manages other resources provided by the Internet, stood out in the evaluation.  The policy of Russia Today is aimed at misinforming through other media that offer the same information manipulated from different points of view which, in turn, guide the behavior of the receivers of the message in a specific direction.

In 2020, Vladimir Rouvinski, professor of Political Studies and International Relations at “Universidad Icesi” in Cali, Colombia, got to the core of Russia Today as Russia’s best communicational showcase in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Rouvinski presented an enlightening report: “First of all, it is necessary to underline that all Russian media working in the region are sponsored by Putin’s government: the Spanish version of the TV channel Russia Today (RT), the news network Sputnik Mundo, as well as an informative website called Russia Beyond”.

“RT has become a true success story.  It is considered to be the main source of information in the region and its impact has made it an important opinion maker for a large part of the population.  Many viewers follow its programming.  RT is included in the basic cable and satellite programming packages of at least 340 providers.  In addition, it is also offered as part of the public television network in Argentina and Venezuela and some of its programs are rebroadcast by other television channels, including Telesur, which increases the number of its potential viewers.  In fact, RT is available for free 24/7 and in high quality online.”

The growth of RT’s audience is very significant.  By 2020, its Youtube site (RT in Spanish) had more than 3.6 million subscribers.  By September 2021, it had already reached 5.2 million subscribers.

Rouvinski’s analysis of RT’s programming illustrates the media’s mood: “Most of its content questions the point of view of the United States and its allies on politically sensitive issues for the audience (…) it attacks the values relating to liberal democracy, thus showing a positive image of Russia, as well as of other Moscow-friendly regimes, trying to increase its influence in the Western hemisphere”.

“Some guidelines point to frontal attacks; for example, during the crisis in 2019 all their programs had a central focus: Venezuela’s difficulties are the result of actions led by the United States.”

Rouvinski lists some interesting reasons for RT’s success: “It has a great visual quality, especially for younger audience.  Most of the programming is produced by Latin American journalists, so information consumers do not perceive that it is a foreign channel.  In addition, its vast network of correspondents around the world ensures its ability to produce more information”.

Pablo Rey García, PhD in Communication, MA in Peace, Security and Defense, and Jorge Miranda Galbe, also PhD in Communication, together with a team of students from the Faculty of Communication at “Universidad Pontificia de Salamanca” in Spain, conducted a research work on RT channel in 2019.

“This case allows to understand postmodern propaganda where it is very difficult for the viewer to distinguish facts and information from pro-Russian or anti-Western utilitarian perceptions and propaganda.  It is clear that RT’s priority is Latin America”.

The entertainment content on offer could be described on the surface as harmless and empathetic. It is usually interspersed with curious news, ecological issues and many expressions of affection for animals.

In Venezuela, the RT channel is part of several cable companies (Simple TV, Inter).  On the pro-government channel VTV, the news program Actualidad RT and a program “El mundo en contexto” (The world in context) are presented twice a day, with fresh news, mainly curiosities, ephemeris, and profiles of personalities.

Beyond RT, experts agree that Russia has taken the international stage with powerful tools, technological capacity, and an efficient narrative that seeks to weaken the adversary by attacking weak points in Western democracies, without the need to sell its own image.

On the Internet, the Russians are strong through trolls, accounts operated by real people who try to steer online conversations toward certain ways of thinking or behaviors that are suitable to further Russian propaganda.  Trolls are part of the Kremlin’s propaganda system and information warfare techniques.

“There is a huge number of accounts on Facebook or Twitter maintained by the Russian information system that publishes and shares information that is not entirely true. These users who act in favor of Russian propaganda are located in what are they call “troll factories” which produce information continuously in twelve-hour shifts. These factories have an image creation department, a video department, and an online diary where the trolls carry out their work.”

“They are also strong with bots, accounts that are guided by people but operate automatically by publishing or sharing content based on a series of algorithms, employed to mark trends in social networks, which detect hashtags -#- mentions of certain accounts or words marked in advance”, as the University of Salamanca team documented.

And The Chinese Too

China, like Russia, assumes information as a fundamental tool for the projection of national power and as one of the main assets to maintain its political, social, or moral stability in the face of external “harmful” influences.  Both countries detected the danger of new technologies. The possibility of the population having access to different sources of information threatened their control, in other words: it was a potential destabilizer. They also had to avoid technological dependence on the United States, so they restricted the Internet (they tried to get the international community to support their control) and created a cybernetic system of their own, potentially isolated from the rest of the world.

This analysis by Guillem Colom, professor of Political Sciences at Universidad Pablo de Olavide in Spain, argues that Russia and China’s conceptions of information warfare have similarities and also important differences, which in the case of Venezuela has not been a reason to prevent both countries from directing their cyberspace.

China created its own technological innovation system and prepared the People’s Liberation Army for computerized warfare.  Its strategy focuses on the psychological, propagandistic, legal, and public opinion aspects.

There is no doubt that for Russia and China, the ambiguity of the Gray Zone is a favorable territory for their strategies.

Cyberespionage Mission

Since mid-2017, the neighbors of Las Acacias area in Caracas have been suffering from the remodeling of the old CANTV building located there.  The works have been going on for a long time and had generated inconveniences that had disturbed the carefully preserved tranquility of living among old acquaintances. The 500 families of Los Laureles avenue had endured for 9 months the hustle and bustle of heavy machinery and the intense movement of personnel 24 hours a day.  Three months earlier, things had gotten worse when 16 huge and powerful air conditioning compressors were installed, producing a lot of noise and unbearable heat.  Even the beautiful macaws fled. Fed up with the situation, they called the journalists, the rest had failed. No institution, including CANTV, had listened to their request to soundproof the equipment and limit the workday of the workers and some 60 Chinese technicians who came daily to the site.  Only once did they manage to talk to the site engineer, who explained that the equipment installed required very low temperatures to operate.  He also confessed that what was being done there was a state secret.

The engineer told the truth: it was a big secret that very few knew about.  All this uncomfortable mobilization was aimed at modeling the complex operation of a large cyber espionage center executed by the Chinese government in response to Maduro’s request to speed up the execution of the project.  He entrusted the mission to his son Nicolás Maduro Guerra, his partner, Santiago Morón, and the Minister of the Office of the Presidency, General Jorge Eliéser Márquez Monsalve, whom he appointed as the head. Márquez Monsalve has been a close friend of Maduro’s since he was foreign minister.  He has more than a decade of close ties with China, where he also studied.  Fellow soldiers claim he was the first spy certified by the Chinese government.

The work of the cyber espionage center was coordinated by the state-owned company CEIEC, China National Electronics Import and Export Corporation, contracted by China’s Security and Defense Bureau. Between 2006 and 2008, CEIEC had been subjected to sanctions from Washington under a law that prohibits activities considered as aiding the proliferation of weapons of the Iranian and Syrian regimes.  In December 2020, the Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) blacklisted it for restricting Internet service and conducting digital surveillance and cyber operations against members of the opposition.  It is a company with more than 200 subsidiaries around the world.

En el edificio CANTV en la urbanización Las Acacias en Caracas se instaló el centro de ciberespionaje

Maduro had decided to complement with the Chinese his aggressive cyberspace control policy advanced with the Russians.  The complex works carried out around the building could not have been imagined by the neighbors.  Perhaps the most important element was the installation of the optical fiber that now communicates with CANTV’s main headquarters building on Libertador Avenue.  The new center controls the firewall –code-named Falcon- connected to the international links.  In summary, computer instructions are issued from Las Acacias.

Before that, the selection of the personnel to be trained was planned: 24 civilians and military personnel were chosen to receive in China the knowledge from the hand of the most respected man in the field, Professor Fang Binxing, a member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, former president of the Beijing University of Posts and Telecommunications. The trip meant discretion and fidelity recorded in a confidentiality contract delivered by the Director of Military Intelligence, Iván Hernández Dala. Three groups of eight civilians and military personnel, who did not know each other, were sent in separate planes.  The first group departed from Caracas on April 5, 2017, on the presidential aircraft.  It did not leave a record until Cuba, where an Aeroflot plane took them to Russia and then on the same airline to Dongguan.  The second team left Maiquetía on April 7.  This one did log the flight by Airturkish to Turkey and from there with the same airline to Dongguan. The third group flew on April 8 from Caracas on Airfrance to France and arrived in Dongguan on the same route.  All traveled on diplomatic passports and stayed at the Silver World Hotel in Dongguan.

The group trained in China poses with the famous teacher Fang Binxing. The presence of Minister Márquez Monsalve and those close to Nicolás Maduro Guerra is clear.

Chinese army instructors trained the team for 40 days. The recruits learned about the so-called v8s, computer systems that take control of social media, websites, and forums; one group specialized in the Chinese firewall, and another group became experts in advanced hacking.

Maduro had decided that Chinese cyber espionage would only be known to his family.  Even today, the entry of people into the building is strictly controlled by Marquez Monsalve.

The software and hardware package that CEIEC provided to the dictatorship is a commercialized version of the great firewall of the Chinese regime’s complex censorship system that serves to block web pages and control information from outside the country, while preventing the internal circulation of content that the Chinese authorities have classified as undesirable. In Venezuela, they block and control citizens’ Internet browsing.  This is handled by the so-called Area 1, within the cyber espionage building. The members of area 2 are responsible for social media and those of area 3 for hacking and scrutinizing the lives of people uncomfortable for the regime.  For this mission, five trustworthy people were selected, among them Shiuglen Kang, known as the Chinese, who works directly with Minister Marquez Monsalve, who in turn works with Colonel Alexander Enrique Gramko Arteaga, head of Special Affairs of the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence – DGCIM, accused of murdering the rebel Oscar Perez, inspector of the Scientific, Penal, and Criminal Investigation Service Corps, CICPC.  Files in the hands of international organizations document Gramko as a human rights violator.  Intelligence sources explain that Minister Marquez Monsalve would indicate to Gramko which characters are becoming uncomfortable, according to the data provided by the Chinese teams.  Well-known influencers have been known to be extorted and threatened, and have ended up giving in with their silence.

The system has shown its efficiency hacking all citizen registration platforms raised by Juan Guaidó from the interim government, such as Volunteers for Venezuela or Health Heroes.  Hundreds of journalistic and web portals have also been hacked.

The Institute of Press and Society of Venezuela in its annual report registers 4 thousand digital censorship initiatives in 2020.  In a short time, the regime’s control over cyberspace is ostensible, but Maduro wants more, determined to completely block the opposition’s communication in the country.  His objective is that Venezuelans only receive the information that the regime is interested in.  He also hopes to achieve an iron grip that will abort any attempt at conspiracy and cut off any leadership that would jeopardize his stay in power.  Maduro wants to remain in Miraflores over a submissive and uninformed people.

“To this end, he is currently evaluating the possible acquisition of an even more complex system also offered by China that promises to detect Internet content by classifying which information or organizations are dangerous to the regime.  This system offers to establish on the registered data, the relationship between people through the analysis of IP (Internet protocol address), with e-mails, telephones, and social media accounts.  Once this information has been processed, ‘the suspect’ would be located and identified with the allegedly dangerous contents”, a confidential source said.

“From this headquarters in Las Acacias, they have also directed operations to hack into Colombia’s security forces and have done so successfully, although the Russians are more aggressive in this area,” the informant said.  

Iran Strives

Stasa Salacanin, senior correspondent for the Qatari business newspaper BQ Magazine and Inside Arabia, a specialist in international and geopolitical issues interviewed Elodie Brun, professor-researcher at the Center for International Studies in Mexico City, who believes that the projection of Iranian influence in this region in diplomatic activities in telecommunications and audiovisuals should draw attention.

Pierre Pahlavi and Eric Ouellet of the Royal Military College of Canada warned that Iran has been cultivating its image as “a champion of Islamic resistance against Western countries, so much so, in fact, that Tehran’s audiovisual diplomacy has enhanced its reputation as an anti-imperialist force in non-Muslim countries.”

In this regard, in December 2013, the launch of Hispan-TV, the Spanish-language satellite network of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting, supported by the “Middle East” desk of the English-language news network Press-TV, was announced.  Since its launch, Hispan-TV has also benefited from a strategic partnership with the Venezuela-based Telesur television network.  “In line with Iran’s defense plan, this media advance in Latin America is aimed at communicating directly with South Americans and creating a permanent footprint in the US back yard”, quotes journalist Stasa Salacanin in a text entitled “Iran-Venezuela: dangerous relations and a threat to the United States.”

Hispan TV presents itself as “an alternative Iranian media in the Spanish language that reflects the realities of the world through news, reports, documentaries, and programs”.  Its intention to seek a nexus with Latin America and its effort to generate trends in the region is evident. It has more than one million followers on Facebook.

In Spain there were allegations that the founders of the Podemos party had received money from this outlet.  In this sense, Global 360 Media, the production company that would have been the financier, grew thanks to Iranian funds.

In the media policy of Islamism, non-state actors are fueling the fire of narratives from platforms.  The narrative disseminated by the Islamic State, the Daesh, took on parastatal proportions with the publication of several magazines in different languages, manuals, and news programs that served as a basis for recruitment, training, motivation, and financing of its activities.  Its organizational structure in the field of communications included highly qualified professionals.  The narratives used constantly appealed to feelings, to affections much more than to reason, which they deliberately leave aside.

The Ecosystem of Madurismo

The Maduro regime has built an ecosystem of related media in order to massively disseminate its propagandistic matrices and manage public opinion.  Fake news contributes to the construction of narratives interested in generating manipulated effects.  It is a very well-designed world that seeks the effective dissemination of its contents through the channels with which they achieve the necessary effect.

Those who direct the communication process do not cease to control the narrative.

Disinformation through fake news or conflicting versions, often reinforced with videos or false photographs, occurs on a daily basis now.

The regime uses social media as a weapon of mass persuasion, using influencers as the new actors of the ecosystem, as well as trolls, to provoke negative effects on the community: confrontation, confusion, despair, discouragement.  Its powerful propaganda and disinformation campaigns contribute to diverting attention from unattended social problems or crimes such as corruption.  On the other hand, they are aimed at weakening the opposition political leadership, which the constant target of false accusations, and using a huge magnifying glass that deforms or magnifies its errors.

The communicational hegemony of the regime is imposed without any possible resistance.  The acquisition of media outlets -which it dismantles and reduces to channels of lousy quality- and the censorship and persecution of journalists and any spokesperson that the dictatorship finds threatening, have distorted the message that ended up becoming a dark jumble of data guided by the regime that, with its power, reaches an audience that reacts under the arbitrariness of emotions, without realizing that it is being manipulated.

The regime has spent time and money to inform its activists of what they themselves have called “unconventional warfare”.  In 2016, the pro-government entity Infocentro published a study material for the Robinson Mission that points out the importance of the “digital literacy” of the population.  In 2017, a document called “Project for the formation of the army of trolls of the Bolivarian revolution to face the media war” was leaked, which organizes teams of militants who must each take responsibility for 23 accounts on social networks to defend the regime.  In this document, five squads are organized: press squads to create informative content, audiovisual content design, systems, incubators (fake accounts), and attack squads, in charge of inciting and creating false positives to confuse the opposition.

Already in 2017, the regime gave instructions to buy accounts on Twitter with more than 400 thousand followers and on Instagram with more than 100 thousand.  The Twitter accounts were grouped into five categories: chavistas, neutral, sexy women, attack, and news.

Maduro also pays its machinery and maintains a regular incentive policy.  To position his line on Twitter on a daily basis, the regime operates accounts with the hashtag set by the Ministry of Communication and Information, publishing hundreds of tweets daily, mainly retweets.  These accounts receive economic benefits in the form of bonuses delivered through the Carnet de la Patria card after meeting specific goals of weekly and monthly tweets.  The vast majority of these accounts are not bots, although they have apparently automated behavior (they are called cyborgs).  These are people who meet guidelines for posting times, devices, locations, and IP addresses (a unique address that identifies an Internet device).  The team is organized as a self-healing network which means that when an account is blocked its operator must create a new account to replace it.  This avoids mass blocking when a large number of accounts from the same date or the generation of content from the same IP address is detected.

The regime makes a daily effort to articulate on Twitter the Trending Topics and thus imposes the daily theme: in the different social networks, it orients contents by generating tags managed to distract the audience or that target the adversaries, as well as appealing to fake news to dirty opposition activities.

The Digital Forensic Research Lab, an initiative of the Atlantic Council, published a report on actions taken by Twitter in 2019 to counterbalance the regime’s bot machine.  The effort detected in only one day more than 8 million tweets from approximately 1,200 accounts that mostly posted pro-Maduro propaganda.

Twitter’s chief integrity officer, Yoel Roth, said at the time that 1,196 accounts located in Venezuela had been deleted.

It is a piece of machinery with which the dictatorship guarantees to have control of the narrative in the growing space of the Gray Zone, where the truth is annihilated in the realm of organized crime under the advice and support of countries with autocratic governments.

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