In El Salvador, the libertarian streak of Bitcoin follows an autocratic regime

In early June a pre-recorded video informed the citizens of El Salvador that they were about to take part in a great experiment. The speaker was Nayib Bukele, the country’s 40-year-old president, who said he had a plan for a better future: Bitcoin. The cryptocurrency would become the legal tender in the country, he said, a global novelty that would raise it to the same legal status as the US dollar, the national currency of El Salvador since 2001. This would help the unemployed, he said. add, and to those who were left behind. by the banks. But for a plan to help the struggling Salvadorans, they were visibly absent; Bukele didn’t even speak Spanish. Instead, the message was played to a lively crowd of international Bitcoin enthusiasts at a conference in Miami.

In the capital of San Salvador, Mario Gomez, a charismatic 36-year-old software developer and founder of a “hacker space” for other programmers, was skeptical. “I’m not entirely convinced of everything these people are selling,” he later explained. A fan of open source technology, he is not considered an enemy of Bitcoin, but he was concerned about how the government seemed to impose bitcoin on its people. So he turned to Twitter. In the weeks that followed, his criticism of the plan grew in volume, as did his followers.

A Chivo ATM for El Salvador’s national Bitcoin app in Oakland, California.

Photo: Cady Voge

On August 31, Gomez tweeted several leaked slides from an app called Chivo, the government’s next Bitcoin wallet, along with criticism. The next morning he was going to work with his mother, as usual, when the national police arrested him. Officers told him there was a problem with his car, though they did not tell him what the problem was. Gomez remembers feeling more confused than terrified. He quickly wrote a message to his approximately 8,000 Twitter followers before officers confiscated his phone. His mother took a photo of him loaded on the bed of a police truck, which took him to a nearby police station and then to another, where he says he was denied access to a lawyer. Meanwhile, a protest grew on Twitter demanding his release. Six hours later, authorities released him.

Since then, Salvadoran police have said Gomez is being investigated for unspecified financial crimes, although no charges have been filed. Gómez and the lawyers of Cristosal, a human rights group that represents him, claim that his arrest is related to the information he shared about Chivo and that it was an act of intimidation to speak. His phone was never returned, but he has since returned to Twitter, where he insists he is still just a guy who thinks about his job. He finds it rather ironic. Bitcoin has long been a beacon of freedom for banks and governments. And yet, somehow, by opposing his country’s embrace of Bitcoin, Gomez had become a reluctant political dissident. The national police did not respond to a request for comment.

A strong man appears

Bukele’s June Bitcoin announcement came when he squeezed power. The first sign of a promising strong man appeared a year earlier when, after losing a legislative vote, he entered the country’s Legislative Assembly flanked by armed police and soldiers. Sitting in the chair reserved for the president of the legislature, Bukele prayed to God, who then told him to be patient. You didn’t have to wait long. In May, after securing a super-majority in the legislature, the Bukele coalition voted to remove the attorney general and the five members of the country’s constitutional court and replace them with loyalists. Shortly afterwards, Bukele designed an extension of his presidential term beyond the usual limits.

El Salvador’s authoritarian turn has sparked warnings from the United States, which has sanctioned Bukele’s close allies for corruption and said it will transfer government aid to civil society groups. But within El Salvador, Bukele remains popular, with polls placing more than 80 percent approval. For a time, he changed his Twitter biography to “The World’s Greatest Dictator.” (Now says “CEO of El Salvador”) “The cult of personality is especially troubling, I think, for many because it is very reminiscent of Latin. chiefs from the past, “says Eduardo Gamarra, a political scientist at Florida International University.

Bukele has introduced Bitcoin as an opportunity for Salvadorans, especially as a way to avoid high rates for people receiving US dollars from abroad, a flow that accounts for nearly a quarter of the US economy. El Salvador. He has confidently predicted that the value of Bitcoin will increase, bringing wealth to the country. But despite Bukele’s popularity, ordinary Salvadorans seem uncertain about who might benefit. A September poll found that more than two-thirds of Salvadorans disapprove of the “Bitcoin Law” and protests against the use of tax money to buy a volatile cryptocurrency have attracted thousands. Activists like Gomez say the government has moved too fast and that the troubled people Bukele says he wants to help are the most likely to suffer losses. In the survey, the main concerns of Bitcoin respondents were its volatility and that they did not know how to use it.

But Bitcoin’s effort has only grown in scale and hype in recent months, largely driven by Bukele’s personal Twitter account. The government is pushing for measures to attract foreign investors, such as a $ 1 billion bond backed by Bitcoin, economic zones with lax regulations, tax exemptions and permanent residency for big-dollar investors. These policies have been drawn up largely by a small group of presidential advisers, many of them foreign, according to the people involved in the discussions.

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