A Plan to Send Millions in Bitcoin to Venezuela Is Moving Ahead

Developer Jonathan Wheeler plans to airdrop bitcoin across Venezuela, in an ambitious attempt at quelling the country's ongoing economic crisis.

AccessTimeIconJun 28, 2018 at 8:00 a.m. UTC
Updated Sep 13, 2021 at 8:07 a.m. UTC

Developer Jonathan Wheeler is at an impasse of sorts.

The former bank employee turned developer doesn't want to say too much about his newest project, an effort he believes could soon help people living under one of the world's most oppressive monetary regimes. That's because he needs others to help him with his mission – getting bitcoin in the hands of Venezuelan citizens by way of a massive mobile airdrop.

The problem is that spilling too much intel could put those he's working with in danger.

The Venezuela government routinely arrests people with deviating political opinions and has even gone as far as to ban technologies citizens have used to circumvent its censorship. That's not to mention the fact that Venezuela's government has already launched its own cryptocurrency, the petro, which it's painted as key to its economic revival.

Still, Wheeler is set on ditching efforts to try and help the country by way of political change. Instead, he wants to use bitcoin to quell an economic crisis so severe people are finding it difficult to pay for necessities (food is in such short supply, in fact, the majority of the population is losing weight).

And he's eager to share that the project is no longer just a lofty ambition sketched out on Medium, but that it has some legs – supporting a growing team developing a mobile app called Azul, which he hopes, by the end of the year, will be enough to draw millions in donations.

Wheeler told CoinDesk:

"To give it the greatest likelihood of success, it has to be done en masse. We're trying to make this a large-scale collaborative mission to help people suffering from financial tyranny."

He admits its a daring (maybe even crazy) idea, but it's one he's so determined about that he left his job at Goldman Sachs in February.

After that, he commandeered the help of Morgan Crena, and together they formed a non-profit called Pale Blue Foundation – a "hat tip" to Wheeler's personal hero, the astronomer Carl Sagan, who wrote a famous blurb about how space makes everything on Earth look so insignificant.

"To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known," Sagan wrote in a famous 1990 speech.

With that mantra, they decided to take matters into their own hands.

"Let's pull away from society for a bit and see what we can do," Crena said.

Usability challenge

A few months later, the project is now a team of 15, including several Venezuelan citizens.

Still, cryptocurrency communities, including zcash and dash, have long been trying to help Venezuela in some way. The efforts are early, but so far, they've been to little avail.

Wheeler and Crena, however, argue that this boils down to a lack of focus on usability. The Pale Blue Foundation is in discussions with a number of bitcoin companies to help them with their goal, including OpenBazaar and LocalBitcoins. And of all the blockchains out there, they chose bitcoin because they believe it has the best ability to be widely available and handle the most transactions.

"We're focused on bitcoin because we think it's the most viable solution with the most worldwide potential," Wheeler said.

"Bitcoin's built like a tank," Crena argued.

To the duo, that's especially true now that bitcoin has the lightning network – a layer-two technology expected to help the cryptocurrency scale by pushing transactions off-chain.

Lightning network, which is now in beta, is a key part of the technical design for the Azul app, Wheeler said. To that end, Pale Blue Foundation is in discussions with lightning developers, including those leading development of the lightning wallet CoinClip and the startup ACINQ, which is working on its own lightning implementation.

Pale Blue Foundation also has an active and growing group of code contributors, including Quentin Vidal, a developer who recently graduated from Jimmy Song's intensive Programming Blockchain Workshop. This is important, those in support of the effort say, because Venezuelans that have very limited resources aren't going to have devices for running very sophisticated or large software.

Wheeler argued:

"It's the people who don't have those fancy phones that need bitcoin."

Plus is brainstorming with the Venezuelans on the Pale Blue Foundation team, Wheeler realized one of the major pain points to bitcoin adoption among those citizens is that it's generally so difficult to use. As such, that's something the team is specifically addressing with Azul.

"People don't have a leisurely weekend to learn how to use bitcoin," Wheeler said.

Buying bitcoin

Still, the research they've done goes further than that.

Wheeler and Crena are looking to strike up partnerships with the Human Rights Foundation and the United Nations as well. They've even been talking to economists to find out what some of the unintended consequences of dropping a load a new online currency across a country with a damaged economy might be.

But even as they make these connections, they're eager to get the app up and running to test the concept.

And then after that, it's all about securing the funding that'll buy the bitcoin to be airdropped to Venezuelans.

Wheeler's original pitch, presented at the BitDev meetup in New York City in February, was to raise millions of dollars from venture capitalists. But as he and Crena have pitched investors, several have pressured them to launch a crypto token of their own through an initial coin offering (ICO).

According to Wheeler, the VCs said that with the market for crypto tokens so hot right now, he and his team would be able to raise much more money.

But Wheeler and Crena decided against this.

At this stage, they're looking for donors to the cause, with ambitions of maybe one day going beyond Venezuela to help other countries facing humanitarian crises.

Speaking to their initial focus on Venezuela, though, Wheeler concluded:

"We've got to start somewhere."

Venezuelan protest image via Shutterstock


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