Friday December 16, 2016

How a Home Depot salesman in Alabama became persona non grata in his native Venezuela

A man counts 100 Bolivar bills on the street in Caracas. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro signed an emergency decree ordering the country's largest banknote be taken out of circulation to thwart "mafias" of hoarding cash.

A man counts 100 Bolivar bills on the street in Caracas. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro signed an emergency decree ordering the country's largest banknote be taken out of circulation to thwart "mafias" of hoarding cash. (Federico Parra/AFP/Getty Images)

Listen 6:45

Gustavo Diaz never thought he would have more influence over Venezuelan politics as a website operator in Alabama than he did as a military colonel in his home country.

But as Venezuela's economic crisis continues to spiral out of control, he has found himself in a position of unprecedented power.

Diaz is the president of DolarToday.com, a subversive website that publicizes the daily black market exchange rate in Venezuela alongside a steady stream of anti-government news reports.

Millions of people visit the site every day. Its algorithms are used to establish the black-market price for everything from basic staple foods to cars, affecting millions of dollars worth of transactions in Venezuela.

But as Diaz tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury, he's more interested in using the site to spread information about Venezuela`s dysfunctional government.

"The main purpose of the web page is to show the news to the people," he says.

Those efforts have earned Diaz the unofficial title of Venezuela's "Public Enemy No. 1."

                      

Trading bolivares for dollars

As the bolivar's value continues to plummet, many Venezuelans are seeking to trade their currency for U.S. dollars.

"You can have boxes and boxes of the Venezuelan bolivar and it has no value; so they have to buy dollars so that they have savings," explains Diaz.

But the government's strict currency controls make U.S. dollars hard to come by — unless you purchase them on the black market.

That has made DolarToday.com a powerful and influential source of information for everyday Venezuelans looking to find out how much their money is worth.

The rush to get rid of bolivares intensified for many Venezuelans this week after President Nicolas Maduro announced plans to stop producing the 100-bolivar bill.

The bill, which makes up almost half the country's currency, has become nearly worthless — fetching just 2 cents U.S. on the black market. Many Venezuelans have begun weighing their banknotes just to purchase basic goods.

And the crisis shows no sign of slowing soon: next year, inflation is expected to reach 1,600 per cent.

            

A game of cat and mouse

Government officials in Venezuela have accused Diaz of trying to overthrow President Nicolas Maduro.

Diaz was involved in a coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002, but he says his current anti-government efforts are strictly democratic.

"We have another means to bring freedom to Venezuela," Diaz says. "We want no weapons; we don't want people to be killed. We have to use the means of liberty; the means of democracy."

"I want [Maduro] to resign."

The government has pushed back. Twice, the Venezuelan central bank tried unsuccessfully to sue the website in U.S. courts. Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has accused DolarToday.com of waging an "economic war" against him.

According to Diaz, the Venezuelan government is also responsible for a steady and ongoing stream of cyberattacks against the site. He likens it to a game of 'cat and mouse.'

"Every time they try to catch us, this mouse [jumps] to another link," says Diaz. "The only way they can stop us is to close all the media, and close [the] Internet."

Diaz is a salesman at Home Depot and says his employers are well aware of his second gig as an online agitator and that they have been supportive.

"They were worried about my safety; that's the only thing."

But Diaz is more concerned about the situation in Venezuela.

"We believe we have to fight our way to gain liberty, democracy," he says. "I don't know when we're going to find that."