Strange But True: Venezuela's Currency Value Depends On This One Man!

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The socialist government led by President Nicolás Maduro has had to contend with the collapse of oil prices, corruption, and high inflation. For ordinary Venezuelans, that means their currency, the bolivar, has become mostly worthless — mostly, but not entirely. And right now, any value the bolivar does have depends largely on one guy who works at a Home Depot in Hoover, Alabama.

His name is Gustavo Díaz, and his website, DolarToday, has become a handy financial tool for Venezuelans trying to navigate the underground economy — so handy, in fact, that it affects the price of just about everything in Venezuela.

Get ready to know him a bit better.

Venezuela faces shortages of nearly every basic good you can imagine and is projected to have hyperinflation of more than 700 percent in 2016.

Venezuela’s growing financial crisis and economic collapse recently pressured the government to announce a state of “economic emergency,” which immediately gave the Venezuelan government full control over the goods, assets, properties and food of private companies.

It's all about information.

In Venezuela, the government officially sets the currency rate and it’s illegal to publish exchange rates for black-market dollars. But Díaz’s website does just that, basing the rate on actual street prices that Venezuelan consumers are paying for food, medicine, cars and everything else.

Díaz has long been a player in Venezuela's political opposition. When he was a Venezuelan army officer he says he took part in an unsuccessful coup against the government of Hugo Chávez.

That marked him as an enemy of the government and Díaz says, it put his life in jeopardy.

“They put a bomb underneath my car. My car exploded. They harassed my son, he was 9 years old. So I had to escape.”

In 2005, Díaz fled Venezuela and was granted political asylum in the US. But one thing hasn't changed. He still strongly opposes what he calls Maduro's "totalitarian regime."

“We founded this company DolarToday in 2010," Díaz explains, "as a form of protest against the dictatorship because the dictatorship was intimidating and controlling the media on all the information.”

So let's say you have a bunch of bolivars to spend. The official government exchange rate is fixed at 10 bolivars to the dollar. But according to DolarToday, the real street value of the bolivar in Caracas is much lower. It’s now well over 4,000 bolivars to the dollar.

That information shapes millions of dollars of daily currency transactions, and guides Venezuelans who buy and sell black market dollars to the tune of $15 million dollars every day.

“The thing about DolarToday is that we’ve found out that from cyberspace we can do more harm to the regime, as a dictatorship, as a totalitarianism, than we can do from within Venezuela … so to fight the regime, because I couldn't be there, we tried to find a way to inform the people what's going on in Venezuela, because everything is controlled.”

Venezuela, in the meantime, struggles with many other economy-related problems.

Venezuelans are dying of treatable illnesses due to shortages of medical supplies, for example. The government of Venezuela reports that one out of three Venezuelans who are admitted to public hospitals died in 2015. Essentially, the Venezuelan people now have a 33 percent chance they will not leave the hospital alive.

The Venezuelan government has reportedly tried to take down Díaz's website. But so far Díaz says he's fended off hackers, and stayed true to his mission.

“The interest in the website is to provide information to the people that they need, to keep fighting for their liberties and democracy and freedom of speech against a regime that harasses people and kills people. That's our interest, to pursue the liberty of Venezuela.”

Venezuelan authorities have accused Díaz of leading an "economic war" against the government and have threatened to jail him.

“Well I don't care because I'm a US citizen right now," Díaz says. "We have freedom of speech in the US."

In the meantime, he also has his other job in a hardware aisle at Home Depot. There, he fields questions about screws and bolts while DolarToday helps set prices for those same products back in Venezuela.

“At Home Depot I serve the people and like to do that because it's a way also to liberate all the stress about what's going on in Venezuela,” says Díaz.

But during his lunch breaks, Díaz says he routinely checks for bolivar rate fluctuations and news headlines to add to the website.

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