A key source of Venezuelan socialist leader Nicolas Maduro’s headaches may be traced to – wait for it – a Home Depot store in Alabama.
That is where Gustavo Diaz earns his living, guiding customers on matters of shelving and how to select the right screw size.
But on his lunch break, and during virtually every spare, non-working moment, Diaz figuratively sheds his orange apron and dons his superhero cape, waging war against the Maduro government. His weapons? A wildly popular website named DolarToday.com, and a Twitter account that has surpassed 2 million followers.
Diaz, a 60-year-old retired colonel in the Venezuelan army, took part in the coup attempt against the late President Hugo Chavez in 2002, briefly becoming part of the new administration before Chavez regained power.
He fled to Alabama, where a sister and brother live, about 10 years ago after his car, which he was not inside at that moment, exploded in an assassination attempt that was linked to Chavez. The U.S. government quickly gave Diaz political asylum, and he became a U.S. citizen a few years later.
“I was lucky I was not in that car,” Diaz said. “Before the bomb, they were harassing me, my family, even my son when he was 9 years old.”
"The only reason I was even able to leave Venezuela was because when I got to the airport, their computers were down so they couldn't flag my name. I was dreading they would figure out who I was and wouldn't let me on the plane."
Diaz says, with unapologetic glee and marvel, that he has been able to discomfit the Venezuelan regime more through technology from Alabama than he was able to inside the South American nation.
“I’ve done more with a Blackberry and Kindle than any soldier can do from inside Venezuela,” Diaz told FoxNews.com from the Home Depot store in Hoover, Alabama that also serves as his anti-Maduro war room. “In Venezuela, I’d be in jail or killed if I were doing what I’m doing here in Alabama.”
“Totalitarian governments close every form of information from their people,” Diaz said. “They control the media, they say only what they want the people to know.”
Diaz, a talkative, animated man with a friendly smile, has managed through his DolarToday.com to influence the price of goods sold in Venezuela as well as the nation’s inflation rate.
DolarToday.com, which Diaz started as a Twitter account, originally focused on the black-market exchange rate for Venezuela’s currency. By meticulously digging up and posting information on the daily exchange rate and other news that the Maduro government tries to quash, DolarToday.com and its Twitter page have become a must-read source of subversive news for Venezuelans inside and outside the nation. Venezuela stopped releasing national economic information about two years ago.
We can never rest. You don’t rest if you’re fighting against a regime. I am a freedom fighter – a Mandela, a Martin Luther King. I love human rights. No, there cannot be rest.
- Gustavo Diaz
Many business people depend on DolarToday.com for black market information, among other things. The Wall Street Journal noted that in the first six months this year, more than 50 percent of Venezuela’s private imports were financed by dollars obtained on the black market.
“It’s my form of protest against the dictatorship, my way of helping the fight for human rights and liberty,” Diaz said.
The Maduro government has not tried to hide its contempt for Diaz.
“DolarToday is the Empire’s strategy to push down the currency and overthrow Maduro,” said Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz, who was referring to the United States when he spoke of the “Empire.”
Isturiz, who made his remarks earlier this year, according to the Wall Street Journal, added: “DolarToday is the enemy of the people.”
The Venezuelan government sued DolarToday twice in U.S. courts, and lost.
Diaz, who runs the website with the help of two associates – one in Miami and the other in Seattle -- accuses the Maduro government of making several attempts to hack DolarToday.
“We have found ways to protect the web page against hackers,” Diaz said, “to protect it from the Venezuelan regime.”
Diaz says if the Venezuelan government is looking for a fight, it picked the wrong adversary.
“I worked with the Venezuelan army and also had dealings with the U.S. army,” he said. “I have the ability to fight the regime. I learned in my military experience how to plan against regimes.”
Asked if he ever relaxes, ever takes a day off, Diaz quickly responds that he cannot hit the pause button in the heat of battle.
“We have more than 190 political prisoners in Venezuela who get no trial,” he said. “They are kept in inhumane conditions, without lights, in the dark.”
“Rest?” Diaz asked, with some bafflement. “We can never rest. You don’t rest if you’re fighting against a regime. I am a freedom fighter – a Mandela, a Martin Luther King. I love human rights. No, there cannot be rest.”