"Benjamin" never intended to run a pirate website.
But every time the South Florida resident sits down at his computer to publish information about exchange rates in his native Venezuela, he has to carefully cover his tracks so no one can trace his IP address. That's because publishing the black-market exchange rate in Venezuela is illegal and considered an act of subversion by the socialist government of Nicolas Maduro.
“They’re accusing us of waging an economic war against the country,” said Benjamin, who asked me not to use his real name to avoid retaliation against his family in Venezuela. “It’s a delicate issue because when you're dealing with a government that makes up conspiracy theories and weird stories, you don’t know what they're capable of.”
Benjamin says he needs to be careful even in Florida, because the Venezuelan government has a long reach.
But concerns over safety haven't stopped Benjamin from doing his work. On his website, Dolar Today, he publishes Venezuela’s unofficial exchange rates several times a day.
That information has become a source of empowerment in a country that imposes strict controls on exchange rates and information.
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“The government doesn’t like it when we publish the price of the dollar,” Benjamin says. “But I can see why; they are making all sorts of efforts to make people believe that everything there is alright.”
Here's how the exchange rate works in Venezuela: The government arbitrarily sets the price of the U.S. dollar and forces everyone to buy U.S. currency from the government to travel abroad or import goods. That centralization of foreign exchange rates essentially removes banks and currency exchange houses from the equation.
When the government is not able or willing to sell dollars to individuals or businesses at the “official rate," Venezuelans trade dollars in the street at higher prices, or using the “black market” rate. Other entrepreneurs buy greenbacks in neighboring Colombia, where exchange controls don't exist.
That’s where Dolar Today comes in. For the past five years, the website has been posting the daily black market exchange rate online, and updating it several times a day, providing Venezuelans who can’t buy dollars from the government with an estimate of how much greenbacks are trading for in the street.
The Venezuelan government prohibits local media from publishing unofficial exchange rates, which means that Dolar Today is breaking the law and presenting a frontal challenge to the authority of the revolutionary government.
With oil prices falling by 50 percent over the past year, and the price of the U.S. dollar skyrocketing in petrol-dependent Venezuela, the popular website –which gets around 1 million visitors every day — has gotten itself into even more trouble.
Now, as the dollar trades for 410 bolivares in the black market — opposed to the official rate of 6:1 — Dollar Today's posts are becoming a source of increasing embarrassment to the Venezuelan government. The site is essentially reminding Venezuelans how life has become increasingly unaffordable under that country’s socialist management.
“Sooner or later we will have those bandits behind bars,” President Maduro said in a recent, nationally televised speech. “All of those bandits from Dolar Today who wage economic war against Venezuela from Miami.”
Government agencies, it seems, have also stepped up their efforts to block the renegade website within Venezuela’s borders.
“Since November 2013, we’ve fought sporadic attempts to block our site,” says Benjamin, whose site started as a Twitter feed. “But everything changed drastically three months ago, when Nicolas Maduro said he wanted us in jail…from then on we've had days in which they've tried to block us every hour.”
Dolar Today says it circumvents censorship by creating “mirror” sites, placed on proxy servers known as Content Distribution Networks. Dolar Today’s staff places a cryptic link to these sites on its Facebook page, which cannot be blocked by the Venezuelan government.
When the mirror sites are hacked, Dolar Today creates new ones in a cyber cat-and-mouse game.
So far Dolar Today has remained a step ahead of the government. Thanks to funding from donors whose identities Benjamin won't reveal, the site has hired engineers to help in the fight against the Venezuelan hackers.
“The engineers we work with are geniuses,” Benjamin told me in a Skype call. “They’ve found ways to automatically create a new mirror site every 20 minutes.”
Benjamin says that seven years ago, there were around 30 websites publishing black market exchange rates in Venezuela, but most weren't able to survive government hacker attacks. Dolar Today, which maintains a staff of 18 "well paid" writers and web programmers in Venezuela, is holding the line.
“We’ve grown because we’ve been able to maintain access to the site while others haven’t” Benjamin said.
Speculating on currency rates?
President Maduro appears ready to ratchet up the war against Dolar Today. In April the president said he was planning to ask Obama to hunt down the website’s management and extradite them to face charges in Venezuela — although there's no indication Maduro followed through on his threat.
The country’s socialist government argues that the rogue website publishes an artificially inflated exchange rate to make it harder to do business in Venezuela, while encouraging currency speculation. In short, the government accuses Dolar Today of exacerbating the economic crisis, generating popular discontent, and aiding the opposition.
The site’s news section, which aggregates content from several Venezuelan newspapers with inflammatory anti-government headlines, certainly creates the impression that it's pushing for a change of leadership.
But Benjamin says the headlines are selected by the site’s writers based in Venezuela. They work separately out of their homes to avoid detection by the government.
“I can’t control what they write, and I don’t have time to,” says Benjamin who also works a full-time job in Florida.
Benjamin says the exchange rates he publishes are based on daily calls to several currency traders in Cucuta, a Colombian border city where bolivares are openly traded for Colombian pesos.
Benjamin gets the bolivar to peso exchange rate, then converts that to dollars. He says his method is so reliable that even financial news wires like Reuters have quoted his exchange rate.
“The formula I use is very simple,” Benjamin said. “I don’t tell the trading houses that I’m calling from Dolar Today, in order to prevent speculation; I just pretend to be a regular businessman trying to trade money.”
Benjamin says that the government’s campaign to shut down his site is another example of the Maduro administration trying to hide news about Venezuela’s economic failings. Even Venezuela's Central Bank hasn’t published inflation estimates for the past six months.
“It’s a very infantile way of dealing with the problem” the web publisher says. “You can’t think that things will improve by not publishing information about what’s going on.”
Benjamin insists he'll continue to bring his black market exchange rates to the people.
“We aren’t doing anything wrong,” he stressed. “We're not even selling or buying dollars, or breaking any U.S. laws.”
Dolar Today, he says, is just a hobby—but he feels like it’s also his duty.
“If I'm in the U.S., where I have a certain degree of protection, it's my moral responsibility to keep informing people about exchange rates,” Benjamin said. “I don’t feel like a rebel. I'm simply a communicator who is bringing information to a country where most media outlets have been hijacked by the government.”
Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.