Photo credit: RandomlyJim
Public Enemy No. 1 of Venezuela’s dictatorial government is a quiet old man who works at Home Depot in Alabama that has had to survive assassination attempts.
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 Venezuela, influencing the inflation rate and swaying millions of dollars of daily currency transactions.
Socialist President Nicolás Maduro has accused him of leading an “economic war” against his embattled government and vowed to jail Mr. Díaz.
“They put a bomb underneath my car. My car exploded.”
That’s before he escaped to a Home Depot in Alabama.
The Venezuelan central bank has since unsuccessfully filed suit against him twice in U.S. courts.
His “strategy to push down the currency and overthrow Maduro,” Vice President Aristóbulo Istúriz said earlier this year, asserting that the U.S. was orchestrating this man’s work. The U.S. State Department declined to comment.
The alleged mastermind of this plot likes to sport a red University of Alabama baseball cap and answers questions at his Home Depot day job from do-it-yourselfers on what kinds of screws they should use to hang shelves. He drives a beat-up 2010 Toyota Corolla with his Home Depot schedule attached to the sun visor and translates part-time in a city court to make ends meet.
So how is this quiet old man causing so much havoc to the entire Venezuelan currency and government?
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.
It all began as a Twitter feed that posted the black-market exchange rate for Venezuela’s currency, the bolivar. He 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.
His Twitter page quickly surpassed two million followers, spawning his website DolarToday, 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.
“To me, it’s still a passionate daily fight against totalitarianism,” said Mr. Díaz.
Behind his humble demeanor, 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.
Lately, he 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.”
Special thanks to WSJ, Kejal Vyas and Mariana Martínez in Caracas who contributed to this article.