Earlier this year, Bolivian blockchain engineer Mario Blacutt – previously known in crypto circles only as “Berzeck” –finally felt safe enough to reveal his name and come out as the creator of a new blockchain network.
A year earlier, Blacutt had his bank accounts shut down and his credit card taken away. The banks cited a directive put out by Bolivia’s central bank (BCB) in 2014 prohibiting virtual currencies, and flagged funds received in Blacutt’s accounts via crypto exchanges Bitstamp and Bitinka. Blacutt was paid in cryptocurrency.
“They said it was to protect me. This is a funny thing,” Blacutt said.
Even as many governments around the world embrace or at least regulate cryptocurrency, Bolivia is one of the rare countries that tried to stamp it out entirely.
A 2014 central bank circular technically only prohibited the use of crypto by banks and in commercial transactions or payments. But in 2017, Bolivian authorities arrested 60 individuals who were allegedly “undergoing training related to the investment of money in cryptocurrencies,” according to a statement released by the country’s financial authority ASFI.
So when Morales fled, Blacutt felt more at ease. “After he was ousted, I was more free to use my identity because I was optimistic that things were finally changing,” he told CoinDesk.
But now, Morales is back.
In the balance
Now, many things hang in the balance, including crypto.
Alberto Bonadona, senior economist and emeritus professor at Universidad Mayor de San Andrés (UMSA) in Bolivia told CoinDesk the current government is unlikely to reverse the crypto ban.
“All these kinds of cryptocurrencies are not quite welcome in Bolivia,” Bonadona said.
Although Blacutt doesn’t believe he’s in any real danger, the return of the socialist government, he said, may put crypto enthusiasts in a “difficult position.”
But a growing community of advocates including Bolivian software engineers, entrepreneurs and developers are determined to change the government’s position.
Even though policy remains unchanged, sentiment may be changing, albeit slowly. The interim government that came to power after Morales’ exit did not lift the ban, but the blockchain community visibly grew this year. Bolivian users only traded a monthly average of $21,330 on peer-to-peer exchange Paxful, but the platform saw a 570% increase in trading volume compared to 2019, while new user registrations went up by 230%.
LocalBitcoins saw over 450% growth in trading volumes between January and September 2020, recording an all-time daily high of $17,000 on Sept. 2.
Why ban crypto?
In 2014, Bolivian software engineer Gabriela Melendrez was writing her undergraduate thesis on blockchain technology when the country’s central bank (BCB) issued the directive banning the use of “any kind of currency that is not issued and controlled by a government or an authorized entity.”
The directive was the first of its kind from a South American nation, and named a range of virtual currencies including bitcoin, namecoin, devcoin, quark and others as currencies that “do not belong to any state, country or economic zone” because they can cause losses to their holders.
Melendrez interviewed BCB personnel following the ban.
“The resolution was born to protect the population against pyramid schemes, Ponzi schemes and things like that. That was the answer they gave me,” Melendrez told CoinDesk via Telegram.
The 2017 statement by the ASFI reminded the citizens of Bolivia that this type of activity is prohibited across the nation because they may seek to trick Bolivians into losing their money and savings.
The central bank did not respond to requests for comment by press time. CoinDesk received a bounce-back from the ASFI email address a week after initially reaching out.
Blacutt confirmed the government was nervous about scams and the use of cryptocurrencies to fund criminal activities. But that was only part of the story.
The BCB statement also said the ban is necessary to ensure the stability and purchasing power of the national currency, the boliviano.
When the socialist government came to power in October, the country’s foreign reserves fell to a record low, the lowest in 13 years, down $1.3 billion since September. Wealthy Bolivians had begun sending money abroad, fearing President Arce’s promised wealth tax on millionaires.
Cryptocurrencies “could help people to take money out of the economy. Right now, they’re trying to stop that,” Bonadona said.
An uneasy fit
When systems engineer Alvaro Guzman first heard about bitcoin back in 2013, he stayed up all night discussing the possible applications of blockchain in Bolivia.
“The first area I saw is, of course, an alternative to traditional banking. The second and very interesting area of development is on transparency,” Guzman told CoinDesk, citing claims of fraud that surrounded Morales’ fourth-term election last year, which led to his eventual resignation.
Guzman suggested that blockchain-based banking and cryptocurrencies can offer a viable alternative to traditional financial services in the country for a number of reasons, one being its high unbanked population.
According to World Bank statistics, in 2017, 46% of Bolivian adults did not have a bank account while only 7% of adults had a credit card. For comparison, 29% of Venezuelan adults claimed to own a credit card in 2017.
Bolivia has a very large, informal economy that is not taxed or regulated by the government, Guzman said. In fact, it is the largest informal economy in the world, according to the International Monetary Fund.
While a cash-driven economy and large unbanked population are driving crypto adoption in Mexico, Bolivia doesn’t seem to be showing the same momentum or interest in digital assets.
Bonadona said the government and most Bolivians still view bitcoin as an instrument for speculation as opposed to a reserve or currency that can be used for international transactions.
In Bolivia, Bonadona added, speculative investment instruments are not all the rage. According to the 2020 Investment Climate Statement by the U.S. Department of State, the Bolivian stock exchange (BBV) is very small, with more than 95% of transactions concentrated in bonds and debt instruments.
“There is the idea that basically this is a bubble and somehow, in some time, it will explode and won’t do any good for anybody who invested in it,” Bonadona said.
Although it may have looked like an outright ban on the usage of crypto, Blacutt and Guzman agree that the 2014 central bank directive did not ban owning or trading crypto on exchanges, but only limited paying for goods and services with cryptocurrencies (hence keeping it out of circulation) and prohibited banks from transacting with them.
The ban is very specific in saying that Bolivia is not allowing commercial transactions using a currency that’s not issued by the central bank, Guzman said, adding that he can’t go out and buy a burger or a car with bitcoin.
“But that’s the only thing that they have written in the law. … The problem is that in practice, if you promote bitcoin, they can arrest you,” Blacutt said.
Despite the ban, and the authorities’ somewhat haphazard interpretation of it, blockchain believers powered ahead through the Morales regime and seemed undeterred by the Socialist party’s return to power.
“Technology is always one step ahead of legislation,” Guzman said.
After the ban was implemented, crypto enthusiasts formed networks that traded in cash underground, making themselves invisible to the government, Guzman added.
According to blockchain developer Huascar Miranda Martinez, few Bolivians trade on peer-to-peer platforms like LocalBitcoins and even less use exchanges like Binance (where they are not allowed to trade with a Bolivian credit card), although that number is slowly growing. People mostly trade bitcoin in person to avoid interactions with banks: Buyers and sellers agree on prices in WhatsApp groups or other social media networks, and meet at restaurants or cafes to exchange bitcoin wallet addresses for cash.
“The bank prohibition is not a problem for us. It’s a problem for the bank,” Martinez said.
To avoid getting flagged by banks, Guzman said people are now careful about how much money they transfer from wallets or exchanges, and make sure banks are not used in a way that breaks the law.
“Basically, the only thing that the bank can do is say, hey, you’re getting $70,000? Who sent this money? How did you get it? And depending on the response, and the amount, the bank can follow up with an investigation and look for the source,” Guzman said.
Road to adoption
Bolivia is in recession, compounded by the COVID-19 health crisis. Its economy is projected to contract by 7.3% this year, according to the World Bank. Although the pandemic’s economic fallout is driving crypto adoption in countries like Nigeria, where a tech-savvy population is increasingly using bitcoin as a hedge against inflation, in Bolivia people still seem to prefer physical assets like jewelry or cash.
Guzman says this may have to do with a lack of knowledge of digital currency. Even if Bolivians buy things online, people still end up paying in cash, Guzman said, either on delivery or using a third party.
Bolivia’s blockchain activists aim to communicate with both the people and the government, helping them understand the broader applications of blockchain technology, Melendrez said.
Melendrez works with various crypto projects and founded Bolivian Mind Blockchain, a platform for learning and sharing knowledge about the technology.
“Nowadays we are working on education and presenting projects that could help our society understand the technology,” Melendrez said.
She eventually met Guzman, who was hosting meetings over beer to talk about community interest in cryptocurrencies. Lately, and more urgently, Guzman has been meeting with former lawmakers and experts to find ways to open a discussion with the government.
Meanwhile, blockchain projects are slowly coming out of the woodwork: A Bolivian cattle ranch is to be tokenized so investors can trade physical assets digitally, and a blockchain advocate Carlos Rodrigo, has created a gold tokenization project.
“I want to launch the project, and use that to show the government how we can raise capital in order to expand natural resources in our country with the private sector,” Rodrigo said.
Rodrigo is hopeful the government will reverse the ban. Eventually, he said, “they’re going to do it.”
UPDATE (Dec. 8, 2020, 15:27 UTC): CoinDesk received a bounce-back from the ASFI’s email address a week after initially reaching out.