Category Archives: Colombia

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Bitcoin in the Americas: The Changing Face of Money in Latin America

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Cryptocurrencies are on the march in South America despite the continent’s relatively small slice in the global ownership breakdown.

The number of users of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin and Dash continues to swell in many Latin American countries, and historically it is not hard to see why.

The last World Bank study revealed that as few as 49 percent of adults in the region had access to traditional banking, mainly due to the costs inflicted on potential new customers, and the bureaucracy involved in setting up a bank account. However, the deep penetration of smartphones continues to give autonomy to many without banking facilities by enabling them to conduct simple financial transactions using Bitcoin. South Americans love cash, it has always been the mainstay of a market economy, with credit cards still little used by much of the community for similar reasons as those for circumventing the traditional banking system.

Venezuela

Countries suffering inflation are currently the key drivers of Bitcoin and alternative currencies in South America and the mother of all these currently in Venezuela. For this reason, the movers and shakers of the crypto space in South America are rarely out of the press. Venezuela and Columbia are now almost joined at the hip, with President Maduro’s economic crisis causing refugees to flee across Venezuela’s nearest border.

With the International Monetary Fund (IMF) predicting that Venezuelans may face consumer prices that will “increase by 10 million percent over the course of 2019,” many nationals have been forced to flee, or remain but shun the traditional economy by using bitcoin as a tool.

In terms of tracking the rise of Bitcoin in the Americas, the numbers speak for themselves. The latest statistics show Venezuela’s weekly Bitcoin Volume increasing from 11 BTC in the first week of January 2017 to a staggering 190 BTC in the first week of January 2019. Volume-wise, the figures are equally impressive with trade volume in Venezuela up to 252 BTC in the last week of 2018. President Maduro’s saving grace, the Petro, backed by huge oil reserves has been a failure, and the country has turned to more traditional cryptocurrencies in order to bypass the worthless national currency, the Bolivar.

Bitcoin is now recognized as the only way of getting around the country’s currency controls, and bitcoin mining offers Venezuelans a chance to pay for good imported from overseas. Although the process is not sanctioned for individuals other than going through ‘official’ methods, residents are able to sidestep the government’s control to buy foodstuffs from Florida and Miami by trading Bitcoin for bolivars.

Brazil

Brazil is the economic giant of South America, and a recent change in government has analysts waiting to observe how this might change the direction of the current legislation regarding cryptocurrency. Bitcoin use is certainly not undercover in the country, it is out there and being used as Satoshi intended. Supermarkets, construction, e-commerce, hospitality, and transportation have all become highly visible evidence that cryptocurrencies are becoming increasingly mainstream.

BTC, BCH or LTC are commonly used and now, a supermarket chain ‘Oasis Supermercados’ allows customers to use any of these to pay for groceries. Transportation companies, such as ‘Viação Garcia’ are also open to payment in any of these three currencies. Some businesses and retailers have been taking Bitcoin since 2013. Other businesses including Nobile Plaza Hotel, e-commerce website Fasttech.com, robotic and electronic parts retailer Webtronico, and Imperius Food are also accepting crypto.

Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, has cryptocurrency advocates worried, however. His views are hard right and his opinions regarding women, race, immigration, and homosexuality, among other topics, have caused concerns amongst many. Both the use of cryptocurrency and questions around the treatment of Brazil’s minorities have come in to play, and these areas have already felt the effect of a change of government following his election.

The new administration has already canceled a contract which would have benefited indigenous communities living in the Amazon basin. The project with an elongated title Study and diagnosis of socioeconomic viability of the creation of an indigenous cryptocurrency; development of the cryptocurrency platform; and implementation of that platform,” included the launch of a cryptocurrency affectionally referred to as the “Bitcoin of the Indian.”

As part of the project, the new cryptocurrency would have been distributed amongst Brazil’s indigenous communities, with organizers establishing a database of indigenous territories through working with local universities. Bolsonaro has not minced his words in the past regarding Brazil’s indigenous population arguing:

“There is no indigenous territory where there aren’t minerals. Gold, tin, and magnesium are in these lands, especially in the Amazon, the richest area in the world. I’m not getting into this nonsense of defending land for Indians.”

Columbia

The number of Bitcoin ATMs in the country, the most in South America, speaks volumes when analyzing the degree to which the Bitcoin imprint is becoming more visible. There are now 17 ATMs around cities across the country. The city of Medellín, the second largest in Colombia, has recently installed the third Bitcoin ATM in one month.

The largest users of these ATMs are Venezuelans fleeing in greater numbers across the border into neighboring Columbia. Mostly uncovered by mainstream news in the past year, a staggering 1.9 million have fled poverty, hunger, crime and hyperinflation in Venezuela since 2015.

Dash has achieved great popularity in Columbia in some areas, often more so than the flagship cryptocurrency, with adoption on the increase, illustrated by an increase in merchant use of the Dash wallet in 2018. Bitcoin use is huge though, and in a comparison of the weekly volume of January 2017 to that of January 2019, it can be seen that the weekly Bitcoin volume in Columbia has increased from a 135 BTC to 364 BTC. The BTC weekly trade volume reached a maximum of 759 BTC in the last week of 2018.

Peru

Peru is not a big South American player but cryptocurrency use is on the rise. Bitcoin’s biggest hurdle is overcoming bad press caused by misuse. Peru’s Enrique Cardoza, Project Manager at Bitinka Exchange explains the situation and some of the complexities surrounding cryptocurrency business in the country:

We can say that this is being divided into two camps: There are people who are very much in favor of promoting information and spreading the word so that people can learn. [And also] There are many people who know about this and take advantage of people’s ignorance.”

Cardoza claims that much of the problem has been caused by those who have deliberately cheated, damaging the fledgling ecosystem. It has affected the businesses as potential new clients now lack confidence in companies offering cryptocurrency services as they consider them to be risky. He claims that Ripple (XRP), and Ethereum (ETH) are the greatest cryptocurrencies in demand.

Elsewhere

In other South American countries such as Bolivia and Chile, governments have restricted access to online payment systems like PayPal, who do not accept local documentation as a means of verifying the identity of the account holder. Bitcoin is being used more regularly in these countries because of limited financial services operating in these jurisdictions.

Chile, Bolivia, and Equador

Cryptocurrencies have never been legal in Bolivia and the government has been known to enforce its anti-Bitcoin stance with a firm hand. Mining and use of Bitcoin are still under strict regulation in the country. Chile is somewhat more forward thinking, and just recently, attempts to close cryptocurrency exchanges’ bank accounts has been thwarted by the Chilean anti-monopoly court granting these exchanges protection. In Equador, there are several ways to purchase Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies and although still illegal, Bitcoin is often used by a small number of the population.

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Anniversary Report: Bitcoin 10 Years on in Venezuela, South America

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In a Bitcoin News exclusive with the founder of crypto-backed non-profit Bitcoin Venezuela, Randy Brito shared how Bitcoin has evolved over the last decade in South America to become an increasingly popular tool for freelance workers to sell their services on the global market in the absence of access to payment systems such as PayPal. Brito also discussed his own humanitarian work done to promote Bitcoin adoption in Venezuela, the trajectory of Bitcoin in the next 10 years, and why he would like to see developers work on real use cases for cryptocurrency rather than on cryptokitties. 

Bitcoin’s 10-Year Journey

After researching Bitcoin in Venezuela since 2011, Brito has seen a significant shift in the number of local users and people even aware of Bitcoin. Back then, he jokes, there were only 10 people talking about it in the country and they were not even trading. In 2012, a small number of traders emerged with some grouped on the Colombian border, alongside Bitcoin mining which is gaining a strong following as well.

”It took 2 or 3 years more in 2014, 2015 for regular people to see how it could be used in Venezuela where electricity prices are very low. The first 5 or 6 years of Bitcoin’s existence in Venezuela was mostly unknown- only people with very technical knowledge or really inside the scene from the beginning were actually using Bitcoin for something,” Brito told Bitcoin News.

After 2015, the cryptocurrency was more common to see around, he said, with a growing movement surrounding it because of how it was utilized in relation to the riots in this period. Brito’s own non-profit Bitcoin Venezuela used cryptocurrency at this time to send food and medicine to protesters and street rioters. ”2015 was when most people started learning about it, after one year or so of using it to help people in the streets and even assist others leaving the country,” he shared.

Venezuelans line up at the Bitcoin Venezuela soup kitchen

A queue at Bitcoin Venezuala’s soup kitchen

Many South American countries are without access to major online payment systems such as PayPal and Venmo, so one of the primary use cases for Bitcoin has been as a way to receive international payments, with freelancers and entrepreneurs seeing an opportunity to develop their own business models around cryptocurrency acceptance.

”Argentina, for example, is known for having professional tech freelancers working in design and consultancy. Most of them used to work receiving international wire transfers or through Western Union but, there were capital controls imposed on foreign exchanges for a couple of years, meaning Bitcoin became an increasingly popular option to receive payments.”

In Venezuela, the foreign exchange controls which are meant to prop up the local Boliver currency have been running for not 2 or 3, but 14 years.

In other South American countries such as Bolivia and Chile, they also have restricted access to online payment systems as providers such as PayPal do not accept local documentation as a means of verifying the identity of the account holder. Bitcoin is being used more regularly in the region because of this limitation of financial services that operate in the continent.

A lack of real Bitcoin users

In Venezuela, Brito says, Bitcoin is not actually being used as a medium for exchange on the street. ”Even if you have smartphone and BTC wallet and try to pay for something, it’s almost impossible. Even places that say they accept cryptocurrency there is usually someone there like the owner of the store who needs to be there to accept it personally.”

Citing a report from Russia Today, he says journalists went to popular food chains in Venezuela that advertise to accept Dash but when they got there and asked to pay with the cryptocurrency, the employees said it was not possible because the owner was not there.

Brito partly attributes the lack of Bitcoin-accepting merchants to government persecution against anyone accepting currency that is not the local Bolivar: ”Even though for the last few months you are allowed to accept any other foreign currency as payment, you are obligated to do it at the exchange rate they impose, something not beneficial for the store. If they take dollars, for example, at the imposed rates they will lose money.”

Another problem for adoption is that people need smartphones, realistically running on the latest software update which most Bitcoin wallets require for security purposes. And if you are spotted with a USD200, USD300 phone, Brito says you are putting yourself at risk of mugging or even being killed on the streets of Venezuela.

Data released by the country’s national telecom providers showed that there are only 11.9 million devices in Venezuela, a country with a population of 30 million people. Currency controls mean this number is dropping even further because no one is importing smartphones into the country to sell, meaning the ones in circulation are often unbranded or not up to date. ”Most of them run on old, modified versions of Android designed for Chinese models, copies of other brands,” Brito says, not devices capable of supporting secure cryptocurrency wallets.

After a lot of hard work collaborators have completed the creation of the two water wells we’ve donated to a soup kitchen & an elderly center in #Venezuela. Kids & old ppl now have permanent access to water. Thanks!

Now let’s get em food!

DM if you’d like to help us help others pic.twitter.com/BkTlcAQixJ

— Bitcoin Venezuela ⚡ (@btcven) November 7, 2018

 

The Next Decade for Bitcoin

When will Venezuela even hit the bottom on security, connection, smartphones? Right now, some cities are completely disconnected from any communication system, some going without access to calls, SMS, text, 3G or even cable internet, staying weeks like this without connection to anywhere outside the city.

”If you get into that situation, there is no way you can pay with Bitcoin. What’s happening now is that cables, antennas, and wires are getting stolen by people who want to sell the copper of the cables. This is happing more regularly; it’s pretty common to see people getting beaten after getting caught stealing cables, even beaten to death by people angry that they are disconnecting them from the rest of the world. It’s happening more regularly, even daily.”

Brito is working on a mesh network of devices that would be affordable for Venezuelan citizens, with the software able to be installed in repurposed devices already existing in the country. Antennas or routers already in homes but lack connection to services such as the internet, or physical devices with restricted services could be repurposed and have the new software downloaded that would allow them to connect to each other and communicate via encrypted text messages, as well as facilitate Bitcoin transactions.

”They don’t need any other connection if the device is running the mesh software; they can connect and can transmit both messages and Bitcoin. Any device can have the software installed and is capable of connecting to others up to 5 km away, but with bigger, repurposed antennas that are basically abandoned because of the lack of service, they can be repurposed to make the range longer.”

Brito’s idea is the number of devices running will be so many, that they will be able to connect to each other in small towns and cities, while the big ones can be connected to one another via radio which can go up to 20 km distance: ”You will be able to deploy an alternative to the internet and other communication systems, capable of broadcasting Bitcoin transactions approved on the network even if there is no internet connection at all.”

Bigger devices will work basically as small computers, keeping connected and up to date with the Bitcoin blockchain through satellite. People inside the mesh will be able to see if transactions have been added to the network and approved.

Brito has not been to Venezuela since 2008 and knows he would probably get arrested if he did. He expects the government to try and restrict his mesh network concept, even as it tries to scale back internet use.

”You have to be careful about using, say a USD 1,000 dollar antenna to strengthen the network not only because it will likely get stolen, but people can also track it and get to your house, small affordable DIY devices are much more practical. They are more difficult to shut down or crack down on. Hopefully, there will be so many devices communicating with each other they will be impossible to shut down.”

Money, Brito notes, is a monopoly of the state in every country. Bitcoin takes that power out of the government and gives it to anyone capable of running a node. ”We are basically trying to achieve the same. Just like a Bitcoin node, you will be a node inside a mesh,” he says