El Salvador leads the world into cryptocurrency, adopting bitcoin as legal tender

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele speaks during a press conference in San Salvador,4 June 2021. [EPA-EFE/Rodrigo Sura]

El Salvador on Tuesday (7 September) became the first country in the world to adopt bitcoin as legal tender, a real-world experiment proponents say will lower commission costs for billions of dollars sent home from abroad but which critics warned may fuel money laundering.

The plan spearheaded by the young, charismatic and popular President Nayib Bukele is aimed at allowing Salvadorans to save on $400 million spent annually in commissions for remittances, mostly sent from the United States.

Last year alone remittances to El Salvador amounted to almost $6 billion, or 23% of its gross domestic product, one of the highest ratios in the world.

Polls show Salvadorans are skeptical about using bitcoin and wary of the volatility of the cryptocurrency that critics say could increase regulatory and financial risks for financial institutions. Still, some residents are optimistic.

“It’s going to be beneficial … we have family in the United States and they can send money at no cost, whereas banks charge to send money from the United States to El Salvador,” said Reina Isabel Aguilar, a store owner in El Zonte Beach, some 49 km southwest of capital San Salvador.

El Zonte is part of the so-called Bitcoin Beach geared toward making the town one of the world’s first bitcoin economies.

In the run-up to the launch, the government has already been installing ATMs of its Chivo digital wallet that will allow the cryptocurrency to be converted into dollars and withdrawn without commission, but Bukele on Monday looked to temper expectations for quick results and asked for patience.

“Like all innovations, El Salvador’s bitcoin process has a learning curve. Every road to the future is like this and not everything will be achieved in a day, or in a month,” Bukele said on Twitter, a platform he often uses to talk up his achievements or excoriate opponents.

On Monday, El Salvador bought its first 400 bitcoins, temporarily pushing prices for bitcoin 1.49% higher to more than $52,680.  The cryptocurrency has been notoriously volatile. Just this spring, it rose over $64,000 in April and fell almost as low as $30,000 in May.

Some analysts fear the move to make bitcoin legal tender alongside the US dollar could muddy the outlook for El Salvador’s quest to seek a more than $1 billion financing agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

After Bukele’s bitcoin law was approved, rating agency Moody’s downgraded El Salvador’s creditworthiness, while the country’s dollar-denominated bonds have also come under pressure.

But Bukele, who does not shy away from controversy, on Monday retweeted a video that showed face superimposed on actor Jaime Foxx in a scene from Django Unchained, Quentin Tarantino’s film about American slavery. The video portrayed Bukele whipping a slave trader who had the IMF emblem emblazoned on his face.

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