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We ordered a variety of pupusas, and paid in bitcoin. At the end of our meal, I sat down with Mama Rosa and asked her: What was it like when her son said she should start taking payments in a magic internet money? Did she think he was crazy? The last time the government made a big currency change, she had suffered.
When I brought up dollarization, Mama Rosa grimaced, as if in physical pain. After the transition began, she encountered significant price inflation. But she believed in him, and started accepting the new currency, and more notably, started saving some of it on her phone wallet.
Today, she keeps all of her earnings in bitcoin. She knows it is volatile, but has accepted that feature. She proudly pointed behind her to an impressive truck that was sitting next to the restaurant, and told me that she was able to buy it recently as the result of the growth of her bitcoin savings. She told me that she is incredibly proud of her son, not only because he made smart and wise decisions, but because he is improving the lives of so many people.
I asked her what advice she would give her fellow countrymen and women who are afraid of the Bitcoin law. To get the full benefits, we need education and knowledge. Valenzuela told me that the initial idea behind Bitcoin Beach had little to do with remittances.
The goal was to create a circular economy. A key part of the effort was the construction of Hope House, a modern multi-story building in El Zonte where education around Bitcoin could happen. So, at first, Bitcoin Beach leadership gave paper claims to students and others who were part of the program.
If bitcoin dipped, Hope House would make them whole. At first, the students all wanted to trade their claims for dollars. But eventually, they started keeping more and more of their claims, and eventually learned how to be their own bank and hold actual bitcoin in their own wallets.
Valenzuela told me that when they finally convinced the first small merchants in town to accept bitcoin, it was the first time most of them transacted digitally, and the first time they started to think seriously about savings. Bitcoin helped bring inclusion to the financial system. Valenzuela said that you could feel the community starting to save for the future, and that it was a big psychological shift. Bitcoin Beach educated a group of community leaders to help people navigate the waters of how to use the new currency.
They are more interested in the future. Martinez said it is part of a dream about a future where people would have the freedom to choose their destiny. Thanks to the new paradigm, Martinez said, people worldwide are now talking about El Salvador in a different way.
It is not just about gangs and money laundering. People are talking about a rhetoric and narrative that is optimistic. Other towns and cities are now calling us, asking us for our secret. There is no secret. Only hard work and community building.
Today, Bitcoin Beach is sharing its philosophy with other communities in the region, one by one. Valenzuela and Martinez go to new towns every week, and help people set up wallets, and give them a bit of bitcoin. If the government did this, they said, people would be skeptical.
But because they are villagers like them, they are open. Our hometown is not a scary spot on a map anymore, but an exciting place to go. So now we are celebrating. A country of six million? That will take time. When I sat down with Peterson on his porch at his home in El Zonte, he told me that he originally came to El Salvador in Things seemed like they were on the upswing. It had been a decade since the civil war, and people were hopeful.
His family bought a home in the small surf town, and started spending several months a year there, volunteering and helping with community efforts connected to church groups that were running orphanages, helping with ex-gang member rehabilitation, and working with victims of sex trafficking. The gangs were already a problem, he said, but got much worse in and The violence crescendoed in But a few years ago, a small home was located on the property.
On the night that Donald Trump was elected U. He heard a series of bangs, and went outside to look. He could not see anything, so went back inside. But in the morning when he went out on the street, he saw the police pulling a body out of the house across the way.
People during that time did not go out at night, he said. Some even fled the country, going to Nicaragua or Guatemala. Local business owners were paying protection money to gangs. Peterson said this was a cycle that impacted the lower classes the most: The impoverished feel like the wealthy are keeping them down, so they respond with violence, but in the end mostly the lower class gets hurt, as only the wealthy can afford to hire private security.
In the middle of all this, Peterson was in his third year of working with Valenzuela and Martinez on community projects in El Zonte. Thankfully, national and local crime dropped steeply during that time. But they still faced funding issues. He had been a fan of Bitcoin, but had never thought of implementing it into his work until that point.
The donor was anonymous, so Peterson met with his liaisons. The requirement was that a gift could be made toward community work in El Zonte, but it would be made in bitcoin, and Bitcoin needed to be baked into the local programs. Peterson was open to the idea because the local banking system was extortionate, bureaucratic, and broken.
In his own personal experience, about 10 years ago, Peterson tried to buy a car, but had trouble getting the money out from his American account through an ATM to make the purchase. The wire took weeks, and by the time he finally got the cash, the car owner had sold it to someone else. But these are just minor inconveniences compared to the high fees that the impoverished deal with. So, Peterson came up with a pitch for the donor, including hand-drawn diagrams of how bitcoin would circulate in town, and a three-year plan for adoption.
By the end of the summer, the gift was approved, and Bitcoin Beach started running official programs to pay individuals in bitcoin for cleaning up the community, doing road repair and starting construction projects. This, Peterson said, made a big psychological difference, as residents appreciated how they could easily cash out bitcoin into dollars on demand.
By the fall, Peterson said middle class people from the capital were driving down to El Zonte on the weekends to buy bitcoin at the ATM. Momentum was starting to build. He told McCormack that he should visit El Zonte. In July an article in Forbes came out, profiling Bitcoin Beach.
As a result of the pandemic, tourism ground to a halt in El Zonte in Most hotels closed. By the end of , Peterson, Valenzuela and Martinez thought that not just El Zonte but the whole country could potentially grow to have bitcoin as a currency. But they never envisioned the kind of aggressive rollout that would come the following year. In early , Peterson said that he drove to the capital with Suter, Martinez and Valenzuela for a meeting with the minister of tourism. They spoke for two hours about the idea of El Salvador adopting a Bitcoin strategy.
Peterson said that they pitched it as a cheap and easy idea to help change the national narrative from gangs to opportunity. Peterson said that she seemed to get it, but only a little bit. By May, though, Peterson could feel that something was happening. Instead of making overtures to the government, officials were coming down to El Zonte, and looking at the operations of Hope House closely. In April and May, the vice minister of education and the minister of tourism visited personally.
Salvadorans are suspicious of a scheme from a central government with a long history of corruption. When it comes to the strong national opposition to the Bitcoin law, Peterson said that in general, people do not understand Bitcoin and feel in the dark, unconsulted and believe the new program will be used to steal from the public — a fair concern given that the last three Salvadoran presidents all looted the country.
Peterson said that people are also skeptical of the story of El Zonte. It is rare — or even unheard of — for anonymous people to make big gifts in El Salvador, so there is a lot of suspicion around the founding gift made to Bitcoin Beach. Despite broad national skepticism, Peterson sees Bitcoin adoption going well over the next few years. Everything is software; the leapfrog can happen because people already have phones.
First, by creating a culture of savings. Many people, he said, spend their remittance on fast food and, in general, the money is not put to productive use because there is no hope for tomorrow. Bitcoin allows them to break this cycle. Second, by providing business opportunities. He said that between hotel development, tech sector back office support for payments, and consulting for other countries and businesses around the world that want to add Bitcoin payments, the job creation could be significant.
Third, the efficiencies that will be gained as a result of saving fees and time on remittances are massive. It is hard for Americans to understand, Peterson said, but people spend hours of their week dealing with remittances, wait in huge lines and pay high fees. Fourth, the sense of pride that you see in people knowing that they are leading the way instead of following from behind.
The difference, he said, between subsisting in poverty and breaking out. In a country with such a tragic history and cycles of violence, going from a dark spot on the map to an exciting destination is priceless. He said that they ultimately decided to return to their roots and work on promoting Bitcoin as a tool for the local youth. Others can handle the national work. Peterson said that communities like Bitcoin Beach are replicable, but only if the objective is deeper than just promotion of the technology.
The mission has to be to improve a community. If bitcoin had crashed last year, he said, they would still be doing what they are doing with dollars. But he said that Bitcoin had all kinds of benefits he did not predict: helping people with financial literacy, thinking about the future and delaying gratification. We think the future will be better than today. A political chameleon and opportunist, year-old Bukele has evolved in his career from a member of the leftist FMLN to creating his own party, New Ideas, which is broadly characterized as right-wing.
Independent newspapers like El Faro allege that Bukele has reduced violence by making deals with big gangs, but few would complain about the decline. The big problem is that Bukele has abused his popularity to dismantle democratic institutions. The world saw a glimpse of this behavior in early , when Bukele pushed a spending bill through the National Assembly by encircling the building with snipers and bringing armed troops into the chamber.
In February of this year, his party won a legislative supermajority, and in the past few months, he has commandeered the judiciary. Five Supreme Court judges were sacked in May and replaced with his supporters. At the same time, Bukele fired the attorney general, who was investigating corruption in his government. Sparking concerns about transparency, he also told the National Assembly to keep pandemic-related government expenditures secret. On August 31, the legislature passed a bill that purges all judges with more than 30 years of service or over the age of 60 — amounting to about a third of the body — and allows Bukele to replace them.
Some of these judges were investigating war crimes committed in the s by the government against civilians, including the atrocities at El Mozote. If the cases are closed, it is possible that no one will be held accountable for what happened there. Also in August, Bukele officials pushed forward a proposal to rework the constitution that, among other changes, removes a clause that forbids one-party rule.
On September 3, the Supreme Court, now sympathetic to Bukele, ruled that presidents could run for a second-consecutive turn, paving the way for him to run for re-election in The decision clearly goes against the constitution. The U. It took Bukele just two years to do the same. It is likely no coincidence that the Bitcoin implementation took place at the same time as the Supreme Court ruling.
Bukele has a world-class Twitter game, and has been using it masterfully lately — even poking fun at the International Monetary Fund IMF , and telling the U. Similarly, the day before Bukele announced his plan in June to make bitcoin legal tender in El Salvador in a video at the Bitcoin conference in Miami, his government broke an anti-cooperation agreement with the Organization of American States.
Among other outcomes, these investigations led to the prosecution of corruption cases at the highest levels of government, as well as the discrediting of the two main political parties covering up those acts. Those investigations paved the way for Bukele and his party.
The newspaper argues that he is trying to disable the very institutions that made it possible for him to get where he is today. With dollarization, at least we knew what the dollar was. Dada has received death threats for his work. He told The New Yorker that he was looking up from his desk one day earlier this year and saw a drone floating outside the window.
Privacy advocates like Matt Odell have voiced concerns that the Chivo app could grow to replace cash transactions, which have, by default, excellent privacy. Moving these payments into a digital system where the government has full knowledge over all aspects of transactions could push the country in the direction of a surveillance state.
In the end, why did Bukele push the bill? Was it to distract the world from his brazen consolidation of power? Or to try and get citizens into his Chivo system, where he can better surveil and control them? Was it to make a back-up plan, in case international lenders cut him off?
Perhaps — as his supporters say — to strike first in a digital arms race, modernize the country, and attract investment and talent? Or was it simply to put El Salvador, and his own persona, on the international map? Any mix of these reasons is possible, but one thing is for sure: Bukele is a lot more internationally famous today than he was six months ago, and is now the most recognizable leader in Central America.
They prefer he stays on the Washington consensus, and not start a Nakamoto consensus trend. Whether these concessions would be targeted with regard to his erosion of democracy, or his promotion of Bitcoin, is not yet clear. Shortly after the Bitcoin Law was passed, the Biden Administration sanctioned 11 Salvadorans close to Bukele for corruption. And on September 5, the U. State Department published a press release accusing Bukele of undermining democracy.
Critics say that Bukele will use Bitcoin as a tool to fight back against U. But as The Economist pointed out , it is unlikely that the U. On August 27, the U. On June 8, as the Bitcoin law was being passed by the Salvadoran legislature, Bukele joined a Twitter Spaces organized by the investor and entrepreneur Nic Carter and answered questions from an audience that numbered more than 20, I had the opportunity to ask him two questions: One, would Salvadorans be able to use any wallet they want, or would they be forced to use the Chivo wallet he said the choice would be theirs.
And also, I asked if the state had planned to do any Bitcoin mining with its natural resources. He later posted sketches of a futuristic Bitcoin mining facility. If his administration is able to effectively set up these operations, it could provide a non-IMF revenue stream and a way to finance development that other emerging market countries could emulate.
Despite its upside for empowering individuals, improving remittances, and putting El Salvador on the map, the Bitcoin law is perhaps the most unpopular action Bukele has taken since becoming president. That morning, police arrested Mario Gomez, a computer scientist who has been very critical of the Bitcoin law on social media. He was later released, but the action was a clear move of intimidation.
At the protest, I met the leader of the Salvadoran union for judicial employees. She told me that people were afraid of losing their freedom, and are still scarred by dollarization. She said lots of families still cannot connect to the internet, and that — despite the iPhone in her shirt pocket — even some people in the capital have trouble getting online.
Out in the rural areas, she said, there are even fewer connections. The opposition keeps repeating this talking point, though it is worth mentioning that El Salvador as a whole has around one and a half cell phones per person, that virtually everyone in El Zonte had a phone, and that two thirds of the country uses social media. The protestors claimed they were against the law, not the technology, and admitted or revealed through their statements that they knew very little about Bitcoin. The fact is, very few Salvadorans had heard of Bitcoin until recently, and most do not know the first thing about it.
He told me that he grew up in San Salvador, and moved down to the El Zonte area in , mainly to surf. He said it went well, feeding off a new wave of tourists coming as the violence started to decline. El Tunco is much larger than El Zonte, with many more shops, restaurants, hotels and foot traffic in general. One of his most loyal customers was the owner of the Garten Hotel in El Zonte.
In , he convinced Rubio to establish a second location there, which finally opened in November after several years of construction. Rubio immediately noticed how tight the community was in El Zonte. He also knew that there was something going on there with Bitcoin. One of his first customers was Burtey, the developer of the popular Bitcoin Beach wallet, who was visiting El Zonte with his wife and kids.
They came in during one of the first days the cafe was open, and asked for a couple of cappuccinos. He told me that he was fortunate that business at both locations was doing well, so he did not need to sell the bitcoin. He watched it grow in dollar terms over time. Maybe, in a different year, the price would have gone the other direction, and he would have been panicking.
He had some early concerns about liquidity, but once he realized Hope House would cash BTC out for dollars for him anytime, he stopped worrying. The fact that it was liquid made all the difference, as did the Lightning Network. Waiting 10 or 20 minutes for a transaction to settle is impractical. But Lightning is a game changer. He told me to go look for the guy in the hoody. Mallers, Rubio said, would come to the cafe three or four times a day, paying in bitcoin, and it helped him and his staff become comfortable with frequent orders.
In the beginning, Rubio said, Karla needed to call him whenever someone wanted to pay in bitcoin, and he would send her a QR code. But now, with the Strike account on a tablet, things are easy. I posted a video of me buying coffee from Karla using Lightning on Twitter, and it went viral, attracting more than , views.
Bitcoin gives you a bigger motivation to save instead of spend. I know that the more I wait to spend the BTC, the more my purchasing power will be. The whole region is really picking up economically, Rubio said. El Tunco does three times the business that his location in El Zonte does, but the latter now does the volume that the former used to do.
Indeed, I visited El Zonte during a typically dead time in low season, when the humidity and heat peaks, and when it rains almost every day. And yet, even mid-week, the hotels were packed. There was a hum of energy every night. When I asked Rubio about Bukele, though, his tone changed.
Rubio finds it contradictory that Bukele is forcing Bitcoin on the population. Earlier this year, Rubio thought a legal tender law would be impossible. He had seen Bukele tweet about Bitcoin a few times in , so knew that it was in his mind for a long time. But why would the government give the people the ability to transact outside the banking system? His mother was warning him, saying they need to take their money out of the banks, worried about a haircut in the event of a currency conversion.
Rubio tries to do his part to boycott the government wallet. He has not downloaded it yet, and he does what he can to help people use other wallets. Was it good when King John signed the Magna Carta? When the Chinese Communist Party permitted private enterprise? When the Cuban dictatorship introduced the internet?
In all cases, yes. These political shifts helped improve lives for billions of people. But the authoritarian rulers who made these sweeping changes do not necessarily deserve praise. If Bitcoin is successful, it will continue to co-opt many leaders. But Bitcoin exists to separate money from state, and even as we liberate the former, we should remain cautious of the latter. Today, Bukele is moving fast.
In the span of writing this article, in just the past few weeks, the topic of his running for another term went from speculation, to maybe something he would do next year, to something that his new Supreme Court made an actual ruling on, paving the way for his re-election. His supporters, of course, say he needs more time to clean house, end corruption and implement his reforms.
But anyone who has studied populism and dictatorship will know that that is what the fans of strongmen always say. I visited El Zonte with citizens from neighboring countries like Nicaragua and Venezuela. They had seen this movie before, and were alarmed at the political red flags popping up in El Salvador. A Bukele dictatorship is not inevitable, but it looks more likely every day, unless the president changes his behavior.
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