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The Coder and the Dictator

Just after midnight one Tuesday in early 2018, the vice president of Venezuela commandeered the nation’s TV airwaves. Looking composed despite the hour, in a blue suit and red tie, he announced that the government was about to make history by becoming the first on Earth to sell its own cryptocurrency. It would be known as the Petro.

Three blocks away, in the vice president’s sprawling offices, Gabriel Jiménez was sitting blearily at an enormous glass conference table, pounding away at a laptop. Powerful air-conditioners chilled the air to a crisp. Lanky, with big black glasses set between a scruffy beard and a receding hairline, Mr. Jiménez had spent months designing and coding every detail of the Petro. Now, alongside his lead programmer, he was racing to make it operational, despite the fact that basic decisions had still not been made.

Just after the vice president signed off the air, his chief of staff burst into the office, furious. Mr. Jiménez couldn’t understand — something about typos on a website, an embarrassment to the nation. The chief brought in two guards, armed with military rifles, and told Mr. Jiménez and his programmer that they were forbidden to leave. If they made any attempt to communicate with the outside world, they would be on their way to El Helicoide. It was a distinctly Venezuelan symbol of terror: a futuristic mall project, with car ramps between stores, converted into a political prison and center of torture.

Below the table, Mr. Jiménez furtively texted his wife. Although she had recently left him, he asked her to send him a hug and to tell his father that he was in trouble.

Mr. Jiménez was finally released just before sunrise. When he made it to his apartment, he burst into sobs. Before he had time to collect himself, he got a call. The president himself, Nicolás Maduro, requested his presence. Mr. Jiménez walked to the presidential palace, pushing his way through the crowds outside ...

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