15 years ago, China placed Venesat 1, or “Simon Bolivar”, into orbit, the first Venezuelan telecommunications satellite to serve the “emancipation of the people”.
The start of Venezuelan space is in the footsteps of the “Bolivarian revolution”, consisting of establishing a “participatory popular democracy” and, at the same time, emancipating itself economically from the American giant (notably in the energy sector ). Initiated in the early 2000s by Hugo Chavez, it is identified with Simon Bolivar (born in Caracas), emancipator of colonized populations (by the Spanish).
Faced with pressure from the United States, Hugo Chavez approached China in 2001 in order, underline the specialists in Latin American political issues Elodie Brun and Victor Mijares, to “constitute a key partner for the implementation of the Bolivarian Revolution”. The two analysts specify that “As far as China is concerned, the financial resources it invests in Venezuela are important to cover its long-term energy and mineral needs; this also allows it to balance the American presence (…)”. A few years later, in 2007, Hugo Chavez’s regime became radicalized by establishing “socialism (as) state doctrine”, gradually dragging it into regional isolation (suspension within Mercosur in 2017) and into international tensions (in particular by opposing the Free Trade Area of the Americas project led by the United States). As a result, Chavez increases cooperation with China, which becomes an ally and above all his creditor. In the years that followed, it lent 50 billion dollars to Venezuela, which repaid essentially… in hydrocarbons.
However, cooperation is not limited to the question of resources. As it did with Nigeria in 2004, China is offering to deliver a turnkey telecommunications network to Venezuela. On November 1, 2005, the Venezuelan Ministry of Science and Technology and the China Great Wall Industry Corporation (CGWIC) signed a contract for the delivery into orbit of the Venesat-1 satellite. For China, this contract is the first it has signed with a Latin American state and, for Venezuela, the first space cooperation project.
From CEV to ABAE
To ensure the Venesat program, the Ministry of Science and Technology created on November 28, 2005 a Centro Espacial Venezolano (CEV) for “design, coordinate and execute the political actions of the executive within the framework of peaceful use of space”. Three areas of action are then retained: telecommunications, Earth observation and geophysical studies (magnetic field, oceans, upper atmosphere). However, quickly seeing its skills and fields of action expanded (development of space technologies, training of engineers, creation of services, establishment of cooperation on a regional and international scale, etc.), the CEV transferred on October 25, 2007 to Bolivarian Agency for Space Activities (ABAE)… directly dependent on President Chavez who dreams of exploiting the space dimension to spread his Bolivarian revolution. If the ABAE announces that it wants to develop as a priority science and space education, research and innovation, as well as space systems, in fact underlines the specialist Théo Pirard in 2008, “the agency monitors (First of all) to cooperation with China for the transfer of space technology to Venezuela ».
The Venesat satellite
The first transfer concerns telecommunications, a vital area for ensuring the development of the country… and state propaganda in the barrios (slums) and the most remote countryside. The CGWIC is responsible for the satellite and its launch, but also for the establishment of a control station on the Captain Manuel Rios base in El Sombrero (State of Guarico) 200 km from Caracas, with a secondary emergency center at Fort Manikuya (Bolivar State) 515 km southeast of the capital, without forgetting the training of 90 Venezuelan engineers and technicians.
Venesat is manufactured by the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST) based on its DFH-4 platform. With a total mass of 5,050 kg, the satellite is equipped with four antennas covering South America and the Caribbean, with 28 transponders (14 in C band, 12 in K band, 2 in Ka band). The latter make it possible, in addition to ensuring modern telecommunications (high-speed internet, high-definition television, mobile telephony, etc.), to carry out telemedicine and tele-education to promote access to the entire population. to medical and educational services.
Launch and scope of the “Venezuelan socialist satellite”
On the night of October 29 to 30, 2008, a Chinese Long March 3B rocket took off from the Xichang base and successfully placed the Venesat satellite in a geostationary orbit at approximately 36,500 km. Once in place, the satellite is commonly called “Simon Bolivar” and begins operation in January 2009. Chavez is exultant, as are some of the media claiming that “Venezuela is now in space”. For her part, Nuris Orihuela, the Venezuelan Minister for Science and Technology, welcomes the advent of the “first Venezuelan socialist satellite”. For the State, the Venesat network is important at four levels of scale. At the local level, it affects indigenous communities and rural areas not connected by fiber optic cables and without access to cable television. At the national level, it offers the Venezuelan armies an effective communication system to “ensure the independence and security of the nation”. At the regional level, it offers opportunities: thus, on March 14, 2007, a bilateral agreement was signed with Uruguay on March 14, 2007, allowing this country to have 10% of the satellite capacity. Finally, he establishes “a satellite communications infrastructure independent of large private operators on a global scale”.
However, Venesat 1, which was to operate at least until 2024 (year when the relay was to be provided by Venesat 2), broke down in March 2020, leaving Venezuela waiting but nevertheless able to count on its wired network (which has grown in recent years), as well as the American operator… Intelsat. As for China, it is now using the space domain in its international policy: by providing turnkey systems, it is developing regional groups that are favorable to it, exercising its influence in the “Global South”.
– An article : “Venezuela: first satellite launched by China”, Théo Pirard, in Air and Cosmosn°2146, November 7, 2008.
– Two studies: “Against and against the West: the drivers of the strategic relationship between China and Venezuela”, Elodie Brun and Victor Mijares, in French directory of international relations2021; “Comparative analysis of the space strategy of emerging countries: Brazil, India, China”Florence Gaillard-Sborowsky, Emmanuel Puig and Isabelle Sourbès-Verger, in Report n°15 of the Foundation for Strategic Research, January 9, 2012.
Philippe Varnoteaux is a doctor in history, specialist in the beginnings of space exploration in France and author of several reference works