El Salvador beyond bitcoin
San Salvador, El Salvador—This Central American country has been making global headlines over the past couple of years, largely because of its president, Nayib Bukele, and his embrace of bitcoin: In 2021, it became the first (and only) country to adopt bitcoin as legal tender, and notwithstanding the volatility of the cryptocurrency, Bukele’s government plans to double down on his investment by issuing “Volcano Bonds” and building a geothermal energy-powered “Bitcoin City.”
As I would discover in my weeklong trip, however, there is more to El Salvador than bitcoin, and there is more to Bukele than his being the ultimate cryptocurrency “whale.”
In fact, while bitcoin signs are emblazoned all over the country (and even its Miss Universe candidate), there are little signs of everyday bitcoin use. Laughingly, people tell me that many downloaded the cryptocurrency wallet (named Chivo, meaning “cool”) just to receive the $30 worth of bitcoin, after which they discarded the app. Of all the people I’ve met, only one—an Uber driver—said he is investing in cryptocurrency. But even he concedes that he could barely grasp the idea of criptomoneda (cryptocurrency), describing it as algo misterioso (something mysterious).
This nonuse of bitcoin is supported by studies that find very low uptake. For instance, a survey published by the National Bureau of Economic Research early last year found that only 10 percent continued using the app after getting their $30. Today, the figure may be even lower.
Even so, Bukele’s embrace of bitcoin fits his bill as a modern, tech-savvy president whose policies resonate with the population. Elected president in 2019 at the age of 37, his popularity ratings approach a stunning 90 percent, making him one of the most popular presidents in Latin America and, in his own words, the “world’s coolest dictator.”
Part of his popularity lies in other policies and programs—including his construction of a massive veterinary hospital, aptly called Chivo Pets, where each procedure costs a token $0.25 worth of bitcoin. The rush hour traffic in San Salvador may feel even worse than in Edsa, but as I went on hiking trips to cities like San Miguel and Santa Ana, my guides and companions lauded his emphasis on roads and infrastructure, which has involved heavy Chinese investments and—more importantly to the people I meet—has been a boon for tourism.
Equally popular is his gang crackdown, which has seen the arrests of 60,000 people since it began in March 2022, following a spate of killings attributed to gangs like the notorious MS-13. Human rights groups like Cristosal have sounded the alarm on human rights violations being committed by El Salvador’s security forces, including arbitrary arrests, enforced disappearances, and torture, but a vast majority, who have lived in fear of gang violence and have memories of the Salvadoran Civil War (1979-1992), are unperturbed, saying that they feel much safer now. “People are afraid of returning to the way it was before, now that they have begun to live without this scourge,” as José Luis Escobar Alas, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was quoted as saying.
Last week, this “régimen de excepción” was extended anew, and Bukele is seeking to extend his own presidency past constitutional limits. “We are on our way to a dictatorship,” a local mountaineer told me—one of the few I encountered who were critical of the president. “Journalists, critics, independent institutions are all under attack. Who will hold Bukele accountable for all the bitcoins in his wallet and the millions of dollars at his disposal?”
As with most of the countries I have been to, a foreign traveler can afford to ignore all of the above and focus on what El Salvador has to offer in terms of nature, culture, and adventure. Inspired by my Central America hiking trip back in 2016, when I climbed 10 volcanoes in Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, I tried to make up for having skipped El Salvador by climbing all of the country’s six tallest volcanoes, encountering picturesque cities and fascinating flora and fauna along the way.
The geographic similarity with the Philippines is striking, understandable because we are both part of the Pacific Ring of Fire and have similar latitudes. “That looks like Mt. Apo, and the other looks like Mt. Pinatubo,” one of my friends said of my photos of Volcán Chichontepec (2,182 meters), with its sulfuric vents, coffee fincas, and lush forests, and Volcán Ilamatepec (2,381 m) with its milky-blue crater lake. “It’s as if you’ve never left home.”
“Yes,” I replied, remembering all that I have learned and seen in this beautiful, tropical, troubled land. “It really does feel like I’m in the Philippines.”
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