At Zello, we believe in the power of the human voice. It conveys so much more than the written word and AI voice commands: emotion, urgency, inflection, and tone. It has the power of life and death - literally.
Recently, we noticed a spike in our Venezuela channels. After listening to the broadcasts, we realized that the people of Venezuela are using Zello to save lives. We wanted to hear directly from the channel owner. This is a transcript of our interview, lightly edited for grammar and coherence. No substantial changes have been made.
Q. What is Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos?
A. Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos is a Zello channel that provides information about the political, social, economic, and humanitarian situation in Venezuela. We represent the resistance, which we believe is the true opposition to Nicolas Maduro’s tyranny. I am the owner of the channel, which was founded after the social explosion that occurred in Venezuela in February 2014. Most media outlets in Venezuela, if not all, were not allowed to broadcast this. We have over 70,000 subscribers. On average, we have from 200 hundred to 2,000 listeners connected at a time, depending on how much is happening in our country that day. We have a group of about 10 moderators and administrators that are on the channel 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can connect on December 31 or on a Sunday, and there will be someone there providing information. We bring special guests on, such as political analysts, politicians, economists, and leaders of the resistance movement.
The fact that you can speak and tell people immediately what you think is important. I don’t think there was ever any other thing quite like Zello. When the social media explosion happened in 2014, my brother was in Venezuela, and in a text message he said, “Download this app -- Zello -- and go to this channel.” I started hearing “the police are coming,” and I was so fascinated and shocked. Then my brother said to me that the police were in a house of a general next door -- our neighbor. I went onto Zello and said “Guys, the police are in this general’s house.” Someone said, “What do you mean? Are you serious?” My brother sent me a picture, and I put it on my twitter account. At that point, the account had 80 followers. Then I said on Zello that I had put the picture on my twitter account, and by the end of the day I had 500 new followers. That was the beginning of my life on Zello. Then I noticed that if I said something on Zello and Twitter, more people would follow me on Twitter. On Twitter, I started saying we have a channel on Zello, and if you want to know what is going on in Venezuela right now, join us. Then we got more subscribers in Zello. I feel like one of the keys of our success was that we were not just on Twitter or just on Zello. We were cross promoting. After that we started expanding to Facebook and Instagram. Zello allows you to speak your mind.
Q. Why has your channel been so successful?
A. There are a few reasons why our channel has been successful. We cross promote on other social media networks, like Twitter and Facebook. We have a Telegram account and a SoundCloud where we upload important audio from guests of the channel. We’ll upload when someone says something really important or if we are teaching our subscribers how to protest in a secure way, where you are not going to be hurt. We create a news segment every day. It only last 10 minutes, but we provide a segment of the most important things that happened that day in Venezuela. We put that on our SoundCloud as well. We also have our website and TuneIn, where you can listen to our channel without being connected to Zello. We have an Instagram account. And we have a FireChat account that actually works without an internet connection. We think the regime of Maduro will eventually eliminate the Internet in Venezuela. So, we cross promote ourselves through social media.
Q. What is happening in Venezuela, from your perspective?
A. Over the last 20 years, Venezuela has been kidnapped by a bunch of drug dealers, kidnappers, assassins, terrorists, thieves, and delinquents. It all started with Hugo Chávez, and now it’s continuing with Nicolas Maduro. Basically, they have stolen all of the country’s money, primarily from petroleum oil, which is 98% of Venezuela’s income. They have either bribed or bought institutions, judges, and the military to change the constitution, the law, and even how votes are counted on election. They bought these electronic machines that completely manipulate the election to make it seem like we are in a democracy and that Maduro keeps being elected. They leave a couple spots open for leaders of the opposition so it doesn’t look that bad.
They have silenced journalists, media outlets, and any other individual or organization that is pro-democracy or would like to say what is really going on in Venezuela. They have jailed, killed, or expelled from the country both civilians and politicians who have raised their voice against them. As of today, there are over 1,000 political prisoners that are tortured -- sexually and psychologically abused. The jails are overcrowded. There is absolutely no law. You can be on the street one day and a police officer takes you. Some people don’t ever appear again. You don’t know what happened to them. The government took over a thousand factories and businesses, which they ultimately brought to bankruptcy. Many of them don’t work, have not graduated college, or did not even go to high school.
Q. What is the effect on the Venezuelan people?
A. In Venezuela, nothing is produced. Everything is imported, from apples all the way to cars. Because nothing gets produced, people right now have nothing, not even food. The government has stolen all of the money, so from an infrastructural point of view, the streets are a mess. Buildings are falling down. Electricity goes out on a daily basis. You may only get water every two days. It is really horrible. There is no medicine or no food. People die on a daily basis for not having treatment for cancer or diabetes. The average Venezuelan has lost 20 pounds in the last few years. Newborns die every day. There is no milk. You see people scratching for food from the garbage can on the street. The situation is dire. It really is a humanitarian emergency. More than 4 million people have fled Venezuela since the communism started here 20 years ago. Now this is representing problems for other counties. People who fled Venezuela are now in countries like Brazil, Colombia, and other South American countries all the way to the United States. If you go to Tokyo, you will find a bunch of Venezuelans there.
I have been told that people in Venezuela are using Zello to communicate with each other. Some people don’t have money to pay for the phone, so they will connect to the Wi-Fi or free Wi-Fi and connect with their families from state to state. On a personal level, it’s a way to feel like I’m helping my family and fellow Venezuelans. I live in the United States. I feel like I live a great life. I feel lucky. For me to be able to do this is a little way to help others. My U.S. family hates it because I’m connected to Zello 24/7 and don’t pay attention to them.
Q. What can you do with Zello that you couldn’t do before or with other apps?
A. Zello has enabled us to stay anonymous, and that is the number one thing for us. If you are in Venezuela, and you are talking about the government, they will literally come to your house and take you to jail. So, the fact that you can be anonymous is by far the most important feature and why using Zello has been such a success. Zello has allowed people from around the world to connect. For example we can connect with someone in Germany who is from Venezuela and has information that we are all sharing amongst ourselves.
Obviously, the fact that it’s free is important, right? Venezuelans have zero money right now -- not enough to eat, never mind to spend on an app or something that is not crucial. The other thing Zello provides is the ability to just listen. You can go about your life. You can go to the store, be in the car, and eat dinner -- all while you continue to listen to the information, learn about a topic, or listen to an expert talk about Venezuela. Zello also gives you options, from text messaging to image uploading. Many times we are at a demonstration, and there are police attacking someone. We are getting the report from somebody there who is uploading pictures, telling us what’s happening. You can close the channels so only moderators can speak, too, or you can open it to everyone.
Q. What role does Zello play in providing news and information in countries where information is tightly controlled?
A. It’s fundamental to the thousands of users in Venezuela. It’s amazing how people not from Venezuela know more about what’s going on than someone living there, because the media outlets are completely shut down. In Venezuela, you are going to see a soap opera or Maduro saying how wonderful everything is. But four blocks away from you there is a protest, people are killed, and you don’t know unless you are connected to Zello. So, Zello has been fundamental.
Even the media and journalists listen to our channel to keep up to date. During demonstrations, we are able to tell the people who are there, “There are armed force coming from the north! You need to go south!” We really believe that we have made a difference and saved lives because of those interactions.
Q. What are some examples of how people in Venezuela are using Zello?
A. Since there is no medicine, we get so many requests from people who need medication for a parent who is dying. Other organizations are able to provide the medicine, and we are helping people connect with those organizations to get the medicine. We also do a bit on humanitarian help with medicine. For example, we connect people who may have a little bit of extra heart medicine and may be able to donate to someone else who needs it.
We also make our channel a little entertaining. Even though the situation is so horrible and tragic, each moderator has their own personality. We have one that is super serious, and another that likes to yell, and another that is sweet. We’ve become a family. We take five minutes to tell a joke and then laugh. I think we have the right balance of news, teaching, and connecting people at a personal level even though everyone is anonymous and doesn’t know each other.
Because of Zello, we believe we have been able to save lives by warning people about Maduro’s armed forces coming to attack during protests. Because of Zello, we have been able to find medicine for someone that was dying. Because of Zello, we actually found a hearing aid for a deaf person who didn’t have money to get theirs repaired. Because of Zello, we have been able to find someone to donate a wheelchair for someone who didn’t have the means to get one. And because of Zello, we have been able to send some food and some toiletries to political prisoners that don’t even have access to water in jail. So, those are a few examples of things we have been able to do because of Zello.
Q. How important are applications like Zello for what you want to accomplish politically?
A. We have members form the government listening to our channel. Trying to see what we are saying. The good thing is that they are not able to track us down because Zello’s ability to remain anonymous. We plan to continue to use Zello even after the government of Maduro is overthrown. We need to always be on top of our politicians to make sure they do their jobs and do what they say they will do, so this doesn’t happen again. We are using Zello to organize ourselves, to learn as a society that we have rights, and to make sure that this never happens to us again.
Q. What precautions do you take to ensure the safety of Venezuelans using the channels?
A. The government continues to control the media. You cannot type Zello.com in Venezuela -- you need a VPN (virtual private network). We have very strict rules if you go to our channel’s main page. We are all anonymous, so no real pictures of you or your family, no real names, and no phone numbers are allowed on your profile. No personal contacts are allowed. We all have fake emails. We suggest you use a VPN so no one can track you down. We do not use the sharing location feature, and we ask everyone to create social media accounts using a fake email.
Q. How can people in Venezuela find and join your channel?
A. We would love for more people from Venezuela to join our channel. Venezuela is in your blood -- in your most deep self. You need to download Zello, but first you need a VPN (virtual private network). There are a variety of free VPNs that you can download. Then, you create a user. If you go to zello.com/VenezuelaHastaLosTuetanos, that’s the channel. When you first come in the channel, you can hear, but you can’t speak. You have to speak and say, “I want to be a member” or start speaking your opinion. Only the moderators can hear you, and at that time if we see that that person doesn’t have a picture, doesn’t have their real name, and doesn’t have personal information in their profile, they can speak to the channel. If we see someone who has a picture or name, we say “We see you, and you are more than welcome to become part of this channel, but if you do, please read the rules: you cannot have a picture or name.” 9 out of 10 people fix their profile, come back and say, “I’ve done it.” Then we make them active, they can speak and hear, and they are hooked.
Sometimes we have 2000 people connected, and there is no way for us to know who is who. We don’t know who is from the government. That is a chance we have to take, and that is why we don’t need any personal information. There have been a few people who we have connected with outside of Zello where we have built their trust. Generally, there is no way to screen out who is from the government.
Q. Thank you so much for answering our questions. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
A. There are so many problems in the world. And there are so many problems in the U.S. that I wouldn’t expect this to be on top of the news. I appreciate the opportunity that you guys are giving us to speak about Venezuela. Hopefully, when you do the piece, we will have more users in our channel. Our main goal is to overthrow the dictatorship, have democracy again, and to have a wonderful country, so every little bit helps. So, thank you so much.
I told people on our channel that I was going to have an interview, and everyone was so happy -- some people were even crying. They felt so proud. I’m so proud of us and what we’ve done.