Monday, November 21, 2016

Venezuela’s Nemesis Is A Hardware Salesman At A Home Depot In Alabama

His site tracks black-market exchange of the bolivar, swaying the price of everything


By Anatoly Kurmanaev 
The Wall Street Journal
November 21, 2016

Public Enemy No. 1 of Venezuela’s revolutionary government is Gustavo Díaz, a Home Depot Inc. employee in central Alabama.

On his lunch breaks from the hardware section, Mr. Díaz, 60 years old, does more than anyone else to set the price of everything from rice to aspirin to cars in his native Venezuela, influencing the inflation rate and swaying millions of dollars of daily currency transactions.

How? He is president of one of Venezuela’s most popular and insurgent websites, DolarToday.com, which provides a benchmark exchange rate used by his compatriots to buy and sell black-market dollars. That allows them to bypass some of the world’s most rigid currency controls.

Socialist President Nicolás Maduro has accused DolarToday of leading an “economic war” against his embattled government and vowed to jail Mr. Díaz and his two partners, also Venezuelan expatriates in the U.S. The Venezuelan central bank unsuccessfully filed suit against the website twice in U.S. courts. The government has also turned to hackers to launch constant attacks, Mr. Díaz said, forcing the site to use sophisticated defenses.

“DolarToday is the Empire’s strategy to push down the currency and overthrow Maduro,” Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz said earlier this year, asserting that the U.S.—“The Empire” to the Venezuelan government—was orchestrating the site’s work. “DolarToday is the enemy of the people.” The U.S. State Department declined to comment.

The alleged mastermind of the plot likes to sport a red University of Alabama baseball cap and answers questions at his day job from do-it-yourselfers on what kinds of screws they should use to hang shelves.

Mr. Díaz is a U.S.-trained retired colonel, and he indeed tried to overthrow Mr. Maduro’s predecessor, Hugo Chávez, by participating in a short-lived coup in 2002. Mr. Díaz, who had been deputy security chief to the businessman who briefly took power in the ill-fated overthrow, said his conspiring days are over.

Now, he said, he is fighting for economic freedom and for Venezuelans’ access to information in a country that makes financial and other data secret. Venezuela is undergoing a brutal recession that has made it hard for most of the country’s 30 million people to find enough food and medicine.

“It’s ironic that with DolarToday in Alabama, I do more damage to the government than I did as a military man in Venezuela,” said Mr. Díaz, a short, soft-spoken man with a gray mane.

He moved in 2005 to Alabama, where a brother and sister were already living, and after being granted political asylum became a citizen.

In Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, he lives with his wife in a two-bedroom townhouse in a maple-leaf-strewn neighborhood and drives a beat-up 2010 Toyota Corolla with his Home Depot schedule attached to the sun visor. He translates part-time in a city court to make ends meet. Mr. Díaz’s 23-year-old son shares a house with friends nearby.

On his rare days off, he sticks to his home nation’s favorite pastimes: family and baseball. He hasn’t caught Crimson Tide football fever and instead prefers to watch the minor-league Birmingham Barons baseball team. “It’s the best you can get in Alabama,” he said. Every day, his wife continues to make him arepas, Venezuela’s traditional breakfast of corn flour turnovers stuffed with shredded meat and cheese.

Although about $15 million changes hands daily on the Venezuelan black market, Mr. Díaz said he makes little from the Delaware-registered website, which is free to access. The company’s three founding partners—Mr. Díaz, a real-estate agent in Miami and a supermarket technology technician in Seattle—recoup $4,500 a month from selling advertising and the browsing data of about 800,000 unique daily visitors to Google.

He sneaks to the bathroom during shifts at Home Depot to check his BlackBerry for gossip about the Venezuelan government sent to him by old friends in the military and the expat media, which always promises an imminent downfall for Mr. Maduro.

“To me, it’s still a passionate daily fight against totalitarianism,” said Mr. Díaz.

DolarToday began as a Twitter feed that posted the black-market exchange rate for Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar. The partners calculated the rate by polling exchange houses in the border city of Cucuta, Colombia. Colombia is the only country that accepts the nearly worthless bolivar. The government has controlled the bolivar’s official value since 2003 and bars anyone from quoting informal rates.

DolarToday’s Twitter page quickly surpassed two million followers, spawning the website, which mixes the daily exchange rate with any news report that makes the government look bad.

The site’s numbers show the country’s economic collapse; its rate of about 2,000 bolivars per greenback is a 44% fall since October. Official rates, depending on the type of import, are 10 bolivars per dollar and 660 bolivars per dollar.

DolarToday’s rate is used as a reference by a majority of Venezuelan importers that are unable to obtain hard currency through official channels, according to national business groups. In the first half of the year, more than half of Venezuela’s private imports were financed by dollars obtained on the black market, according to Caracas-based consultancy Ecoanalitica.

A Caracas dermatologist said she checks the DolarToday rate daily and uses it to buy dollars from patients and acquaintances that she needs to import medicine and new equipment. “It’s a universally accepted price. There’s never any need for haggling,” she said. The Venezuelan government and the central bank didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Venezuela closed the border with Colombia in 2015 for a year, stifling trade in dollars and everything else and forcing DolarToday to abandon its old methodology. The website now uses a scanning program to add up dollar buy-and-sell requests posted by Venezuelans on social-media sites. The average rate is then checked against the price offered by big underground exchange houses in Venezuela that serve multinational corporations.

Some Venezuelan economists and black-market currency traders say the sample is too small and easy to manipulate. The partners said it is the best they can do in a country that hasn’t released any official economic data for almost two years.

Lately, DolarToday has been trying to deflect rumors from Caracas that the site was sold to a pro-government businessman for millions. “If I would have sold,” Mr. Díaz said, “I would be far away in a Maserati, not driving to Home Depot in a Corolla.”


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