salvador | The “mirage” of bitcoin

The President of El Salvador, Nayib Bukele, who likes to post on Twitter as a hip visionary, assures that the adoption of bitcoin by his regime will ensure the future of the Latin American country. At the same time, he is leading an all-out campaign of repression against street gangs who threaten to send him back to the anti-democratic excesses of the past.

Posted at 5:00 a.m.

Marc Thibodeau

Marc Thibodeau
The Press

“Your investment is safe”


PHOTO MARVIN RECINOS, FRANCE-PRESSE ARCHIVES AGENCY, PHOTOMONTAGE LA PRESSE

This small business in the seaside resort of El Zonte, on the Pacific coast, highlights that it is possible to pay using bitcoins, on September 4th.

Nayib Bukele firmly believes in the future of bitcoin and is not likely, at least in appearance, to be discouraged by the extreme fluctuations of this cryptocurrency.

In a tweet published in mid-June, the president of El Salvador urged people worried about the 60% drop in value seen since November not to be alarmed.

“I suggest you stop staring at the chart and enjoy life… If you’ve invested in bitcoin, your money is safe,” he said.

The 40-year-old politician returned to the charge a few weeks later by reporting online that El Salvador had just bought $2 million worth of this cryptocurrency under his watch in order to take advantage of the bear market.


PHOTO JOSE CABEZAS, REUTERS ARCHIVES

A woman shows a graph on her mobile phone showing the fall of bitcoin, in San Salvador, on July 13.

“Thank you for selling at a discount! he said, reiterating an enthusiasm that led his regime to make El Salvador the first country in the world to recognize bitcoin as an official device.

The law, adopted in September 2021, provides that this cryptocurrency can be used for any transaction, just like the American dollar, traditionally used in El Salvador.

The government created a phone app to access a wallet called Chivo — “cool” in local slang — allowing transactions in US dollars and bitcoins, and put in a sum of US$30 for each new user.


PHOTO STANLEY ESTRADA, FRANCE-PRESSE ARCHIVES AGENCY

Each new user of the Chivo e-wallet receives US$30 from the government. This is the main motivation of people who download the application, underlines a recent study.

Bukele said the launch was a big success and nearly 60% of adults in the country of 6.5 million people had downloaded the app to their phones.

Nearly a year later, the opinions of economists about the initiative are, to say the least, reserved, often pessimistic.

One of the objectives pursued by the scheme was to enable disadvantaged people who are unable to obtain a bank account to access online financial services.

“The Chivo wallet is useful for keeping savings, but that’s about it,” notes Frank Muci, a researcher at the London School of Economics who has illustrated the government program up close.

Salvadorans who use the app also prefer the dollar option, says analyst Frank Muci, since bitcoin appears “far too risky” because of its willingness.

The analyst sees another illustration of this distrust in the fact that very few Salvadorans established abroad send money back to the country by this means. Less than 2% of transactions made in February were made through electronic wallets, according to the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador.


PHOTO MARVIN RECINOS, FRANCE-PRESSE ARCHIVES AGENCY

A Chivo ATM is vandalized during a protest denouncing President Bukele’s policies, including making bitcoin the country’s second official currency, in San Salvador on September 15.

A recent study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which conducted a survey in the country, indicates that the majority of people who downloaded the application did so in September 2021, when it was launched, and that possibly no new loading only occurred in 2022.

The main motivation of the users, note the American organization, was to obtain the $30 sum given by the government. Only 20% of them continued to use it, often sporadically, after having exhausted the bonus paid.

Colossal losses

Muci notes that the adoption of this cryptocurrency has cost the government almost US$350 million, not counting the theoretical losses of almost $60 million related to the acquisitions of bitcoins announced by the president so far.

These transactions, notes the analyst, are also impossible to verify since no ministry has made available precise data on this subject.


PHOTO FRED RAMOS, NEW YORK TIMES ARCHIVES

Thousands of protesters smoke the streets in San Salvador for signaling the adoption of bitcoin on September 30.

Financial markets are ‘frightened’, says Mr Muci, by the uncertainty and improvisation surrounding the government’s economic orientations and fears that the heavily indebted country will struggle to repay an 800 million US dollar loan arriving due in January.

Ruth Eleonora Lopez of the human rights organization Cristosal notes that the Bukele regime’s lack of transparency extends to all levels of government and increases corruption risks.


PHOTO PROVIDED BY RUTH ELEONORA LOPEZ

Ruth Eleonora Lopez

Most counter-power institutions are now controlled by people close to the president, depriving the population of crucial information to assess the regime’s actions, both in terms of respect for human rights and in the economic field, says -she.

Nelson Rauda Zablah, a Salvadoran journalist who is very critical of President Bukele, recently noted in an open letter that leaders in the cryptocurrency world propelled him with praise on social networks and allowed him to give himself an image of a “bold” leader in the face of the international community.

The speech of influencers presenting El Salvador as a model to follow “because someone pays a coconut in bitcoin” is however nothing more than a “mirage”, it has come to light.

Apprehended for their “tough heads”


FRANCE-PRESSE PHOTO ARCHIVES AGENCY, PHOTOMONTAGE LA PRESSE

Members of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18 gangs are crammed on top of each other at Ciudad Barrios prison in the north of the country on March 28.

Arbitrary arrests have been on the rise in El Salvador since President Nayib Bukele launched a campaign of repression meant to put an end to street gangs.

Boys aged 14 and 15 who played football in a poor neighborhood of Illopango, east of the Salvadoran capital, were apprehended by police in April because of their appearance.

“Officers told the family that the children had badass heads and gave no further justification for taking them. They also specified that they would serve 30 years in prison,” explains Arjun Chauduri, an Amnesty International researcher who recently visited the country.

The case is striking, but has nothing particularly original, since arbitrary arrests have multiplied since President Nayib Bukele launched a campaign of repression in the spring supposed to overcome street gangs who have long imposed their law on the population. .

People get arrested simply because they have tattoos or because a family member has been linked to a street gang.

Arjun Chauduri, Amnesty International researcher

“There is also a lot of evidence that people in inner city areas where gangs often operate are being overly targeted,” he adds.


PHOTO MARVIN RECINOS, FRANCE-PRESSE ARCHIVES AGENCY

A man is arrested for alleged ties to a gang as a state of emergency prevails, in San Salvador on June 22.

The government has declared a state of emergency and stepped up repressive operations across the country since an outbreak of murders killed more than 60 people in a weekend in April.

In four months, more than 45,000 people have been arrested, says Ruth Eleonora Lopez of the human rights organization Cristosal, who is alarmed that many detainees have no way to challenge their incarceration. .

Most, she said, are accused of having ties to gangs without having incriminating information against them.


PHOTO MARVIN RECINOS, FRANCE-PRESSE ARCHIVES AGENCY

A police officer examines the tattoos of a suspected gang member on June 30.

The authorities’ tough policy encourages “anonymous denunciations” and creates a climate of fear that extends to civil society groups worried about the regime’s anti-democratic drift.

“If we ask questions, we are told that we are defenders of the gangs”, relates Mme Lopez, who accuses President Bukele of using the state of emergency to gain control over the country and its institutions.


PHOTO SALVADOR MELENDEZ, ASSOCIED PRESS ARCHIVES

A heavily armed policeman stands guard in downtown San Salvador on March 27.

The Salvadoran leader ignores these criticisms and multiplies online messages and polished videos showing his determination to overcome street gangs.

He had promised in the campaign to fight against their influence, and succeeded after coming to power in June 2019 to bring down the homicide rate in the country, long one of the highest on the planet.

According to the daily Farothe lull was in fact the result of informal negotiations with the leaders of certain gangs who agreed to maintain relative calm in return for certain assurances, including the protection of influential members targeted by American extradition requests.


PHOTO MARVIN RECINOS, AGENCY FRANCE-PRESSE

Accused of having links with gangs, several people were taken away by the police in San Salvador on 22 June. In four months, more than 45,000 Salvadorans have been arrested.

The outbreak of violence manifested in April stemmed, according to the newspaper, from the rupture of this tacit pact, which President Bukele denies.

Rather, the regime attributes its past successes to a plan of “territorial control” the details of which have never been made public.

Regardless of what human rights organizations say, the government’s current crackdown is supported by a good portion of the population.

Mme Lopez explains this enthusiasm in part by the fact that Salvadorans want to believe that a “messianic” leader can free them from gang violence.


PHOTO YURI CORTEZ, FRANCE-PRESSE ARCHIVES AGENCY

Like the Quezaltepeque prison, north of San Salvador, Salvadoran prisons are overcrowded.

Arjun Chauduri thinks that the use of force is an illusion that does not take into account the socio-economic difficulties pushing many young people to turn to crime.

“Other governments have tried this approach in the past and have failed to stop the structural violence that has marked El Salvador,” he warns.

Learn more

  • 103
    Number of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2015, the maximum reached in the country

    17.6
    Number of homicides per 100,000 population in 2020

    Source: InSight Crime

  • 70,000
    Number of gang members revealed in El Salvador

    Source: Reuters

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