US senators ask White House to check whether ZTE violated US sanctions

ZTE, this year paid $1bn to the US govt in relation to sanctioned business in Iran and North Korea.

Two US senators on Wednesday will ask the Trump administration to investigate whether ZTE Corp, the Chinese telecommunications company, 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 will ask 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, following a Reuters investigation of the database and an associated Venezuelan identity card program published 14 Nov., will go to the cabinet officials on Wednesday, according to aides to the two senators.

Visitors pass in front of the Chinese telecoms equipment group ZTE. Reuters

Visitors pass in front of the Chinese telecoms equipment group ZTE. Reuters

ZTE, which this year paid $1 billion to the US government in relation to sanctioned business in Iran and North Korea, didn’t respond to a request for comment for this story.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment. President Nicolas Maduro, grappling with hyperinflation and an economy in freefall, has long argued that US sanctions are part of an “economic war” by Washington to topple his leftist government.

Officials at the US State, Commerce and Treasury departments didn’t respond to requests for comment early Wednesday.

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

The company, of 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 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 Fernandez nor a Cantv spokeswoman 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 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 Wednesday, the senators ask “whether ZTE violated U.S. export controls with respect to the installation of data storage units built by Dell.” A spokeswoman for Dell told Reuters it had no record of a sale for that purpose.

The senators also ask the U.S. administration to determine whether ZTE’s work in Venezuela breaks the terms of the $1 billion agreement it came to earlier this year with the Commerce Department related to previous sanctions violations.

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