As Venezuela's government blocks aid and makes arbitrary arrests, locals turn to an app as a lifeline

In a crumbling country where almost all but state-owned media outlets have been shuttered, food and medicine are scarce, unrest is rising and authorities could throw you behind bars at any moment – there is an app that is being accredited as something of a lifeline for desperate Venezuelans and for their compadres abroad.

Zello, which functions akin to a walkie-talkie and is a push-to-talk voice messaging app, introduced the Venezuela-specific channel Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos to provide information about the burgeoning political, social, economic, and humanitarian calamity.

“Venezuelans use the channel to spread news inside and outside of the country. They use it to find medical supplies, food, and water. They also use it to organize political protests,” Bill Moore, Zello’s CEO, told Fox News. “The channel serves an important role in building a community among Venezuelans, who use it for news, teaching, and connecting at a personal level even though everyone is anonymous.”

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According to the founder, since the contested president Nicolas Maduro took a self-styled oath for a new term, which has not been recognized by most of the international community, there has been a 135 percent uptick in downloads. Overall, there have been 735,696 downloads in Venezuela, and over 13,600 in the ailing nation this year alone.

Furthermore, the 24/7 channel itself is documented to now has over 70,000 subscribers and on average, there are 200 to 2,000 listeners connected at any given time.

“Zello users in Venezuela have warned people to keep their kids home from school on days when listeners report that the government is arresting people on the street.  Venezuelans using the channel have also been able to save lives by warning people about Maduro’s armed forces approaching protests,” Moore continued. “Zello users are totally anonymous, so information can be freely exchanged without fear of retaliation. Anonymous users notify protestors of authorities approaching their location.”

The mobile app first gained momentum in Venezuela at the start of the crisis in 2014 when locals amassed to demonstrate against the Maduro-led government, racking up more than 600,000 downloads in the first few days of the protest movement. Users checked in to channels to assist each other in evading authorities and coordinating places to meet. At the time, Maduro ordered the blockage of various news and social media outlets on the Internet, such as Google, Wikipedia, and Twitter.

In this March 29, 2019 file photo, a man on crutches is illuminated by headlights of oncoming traffic, in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuelans are struggling to understand the Sunday, March 31, 2019 announcement that the nation’s electricity is being rationed to combat daily blackouts. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)

In this March 29, 2019 file photo, a man on crutches is illuminated by headlights of oncoming traffic, in Caracas, Venezuela. Venezuelans are struggling to understand the Sunday, March 31, 2019 announcement that the nation’s electricity is being rationed to combat daily blackouts. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko, File)

Zello too was first blocked in 2014, and with the help of tech-minded Venezuelans, Moore insists that they were able to circumvent the government block.

“A game of ‘cat and mouse’ ensued, where Zello would be blocked and we would circumvent it time and time again,” he explained. “But we were dedicated to ensuring our app could be used around the world to empower the human voice in times of crisis.”

The app creators are purporting not only to help Venezuelans coordinate protests, elude security and mobilize their marches, but it also endeavors to assist in pinpointing where crucial humanitarian resources such as food and medicine can be located.

“While the Maduro government has refused foreign aid from a number of countries, including the US, Venezuela Hasta Los Tuétanos moderators have helped people find food and medical supplies. They have even sent food and toiletries to political prisoners,” Moore noted. “Venezuelans broadcast when someone has a unique medical need. For example, one individual needed a hearing aid and another needed a wheelchair. Venezuelans listening to the channel who had access to extra supplies then volunteered to donate them. The channel facilitates donations of life-saving medical supplies, like hearing aids and wheelchairs.”

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Founded in Austin, Texas in 2011, Zello has also played a prominent role in other protests and mass crises around the world including protests in Ukraine and in Turkey in 2014, and for those amid disaster recovery after hurricanes swept through pockets of the U.S. in recent years.

People hold signs and pose for pictures as they protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with about 150 other people on the Ocala Downtown Square in Ocala, Fla., Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. The protestors in Ocala joined thousands of Venezuelans who took to the streets in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, answering the opposition's call for a nationwide protest to rid Maduro from the office. (Bruce Ackerman/Star-Banner via AP)

People hold signs and pose for pictures as they protest against Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro with about 150 other people on the Ocala Downtown Square in Ocala, Fla., Wednesday, Jan. 23, 2019. The protestors in Ocala joined thousands of Venezuelans who took to the streets in Caracas, Venezuela, Wednesday, answering the opposition's call for a nationwide protest to rid Maduro from the office. (Bruce Ackerman/Star-Banner via AP)

And as the once oil-swathed and wealthy nation continues to fall apart at the seams, the app doesn’t come at a cost. Yet on the ground in the poverty-stricken country, views on the app were mixed.

“Even my dad just started using it,” one Venezuelan government defector, who recently fled, told Fox News. “Good to keep in touch with family there.”

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Meanwhile, others still expressed concern that it had been penetrated by government intelligence and that even though identities were not disclosed, efforts to challenge the regime could still be intercepted and ultimately crushed.

“I know moderators of channels have worked really hard to conceal their identities in order to avoid any backlash,” one journalist in Caracas, the Venezuelan capital, added. “But there is always a concern. People are taking every precaution.”