On any given month, Ricardo saves about half his income, never worrying about the triple-digit inflation all around him. He can buy anything he wants online from anywhere in the world, without a single CADIVI carpeta or worry about the government imposed “control de cambio” or “corralito”. He has zero government contacts, he doesn’t work for a foreign company, he isn’t paid in dollars. In fact, he works as a computer IT specialist at a midsize company. Yet he enjoys a level of economic freedom that is exceptional in Venezuela.
Why? Because he trades and mines Bitcoins.
In case you’ve been living under a rock, Bitcoin is a rather new digital currency free from Central Banks and any government control entity. By design, Bitcoin’s supply growth is predictable, capped at 21 Million, and it cannot be manipulated by any central agency. All you need to trade Bitcoin is your brain, fingertips, a stable source of energy, a PC, and a market created by other individuals.
In Venezuela, where the central bank has irresponsibly financed public spending by simply turning on the printing press and unleashing a vicious cycle of inflation, Bitcoin could be a blessing. It’ precisely the fact that the country flirts with hyperinflation that makes it so well suited for this novel currency. Venezuelans need alternatives to shield themselves from the damage inflicted by a reckless and irresponsible Central Bank. People deserve a choice of currencies and this new tool may provide that freedom of choice.
All that was missing, until recently, was a market. Not anymore.
I had the chance to talk to Ricardo on the phone not too long ago. He’s a 20-something year old, skinny, soft-spoken computer geek I’ve known for years.
The first thing I wanted to ask him is how exactly you go about turning bolivars nobody wants into Bitcoins everyone seems to want.
“There are brokers where you deposit your Bolivares and you get Bitcoins in your virtual wallet,” he tells me, “I do it through surbitcoin.com. They act as a middleman and trustee for the transaction to happen, and for that they charge a fee.
But doesn’t he worry that the government will come in and crack down on the trade?
He says it doesn’t work like that. “My bitcoins are 100% in my control, there are no banks or regulated entities to oversee or ‘take over’. They could try to clamp down on the exchanges from Bs to Bitcoin, but as long as people are willing to trade, it will happen. Even so it would be nearly impossible to stop us from mining, they would have to take down the internet!
I’m starting to see the appeal of this lifestyle. “But wait,” I wonder, “once you’re sitting on a hoard of bitcoins, what can you do with them?”
“I buy all the things that you can’t buy in Venezuela, and get them shipped here,” he says. I also save as I’m certain that even though Bitcoin is volatile, it’s not as volatile as bolivars. I’ve even paid back Bolivar denominated debt in Bitcoins. it was a very good business decision as the Bolivar has been losing value.”
Then came the obvious question: why invest time and money into this instead of the good, old-fashioned currency swap, from bolivars to dollars?
“It’s riskier. I’d have to pay a bunch of fees for wire transfers and deal with banks. Cash is too risky. But the most important reason is that it is very easy to mine, which is essentially converting Electricity to Bitcoins via software and hardware. Bear in mind that I pay the electricity at Corpoelec rates, with bolivars.”
He surely raised some good points, being less volatile and less riskier than buying dollars in the black market the most valid of them. But it sounds like you have to be a real techie in order to do all this, right?
“I think anyone can trade bitcoins if they already know how to purchase things online. I don’t think just anyone could mine. I bought a mining machine for the equivalent of $500 in bitcoins, installed the free software that exists for this, connected it to the internet and I simply keep it running 24/7, as long as there aren’t any blackouts, of course.”
And his return seems worth the trouble: Ricardo mines about 80 dollars each month, whilst paying about 200 bolivars for the electricity it takes to do so. “After 6 months I am now achieving a “theoretical exchange rate” of 2.5 Bs/$. It varies greatly since the USD to Bitcoin changes. My electric bill, on the other hand, doesn’t.”
And that’s if you don’t have the brilliant idea of purchasing a power generator that runs on essentially free gasoline, but in Ricardo’s eyes, this is sort of a Plan B: “I envision that this will happen if and when the government tries to clamp down on us OR if they keep destroying our electricity infrastructure.”
Venezuelans like Ricardo are the early adopters of a technology that is bound to be a widely used. Look at what is happening in Argentina. In a recent ranking of countries best positioned for Bitcoin adoption, Argentina is first on the list and Venezuela second.
It’s no coincidence that that in all these cases, the Central Banks had enacted foreign exchange controls. In Venezuela and Argentina a parallel exchange system has sprung up to get around strict forex controls while the government uses the central bank to finance deficit spending. The results are predictable: a currency’s value is a function of trust in the institution that issues it.
Bitcoins can be exchanged into most currencies, check out all exchanges around the world.
As I write this, you can buy a Bitcoin for BsF 364,000. The value is driven (my hypothesis) by the exchange between USD and Bs in the black market. Once there is a free market of products and services using Bitcoin the true relationship between USD and Bolivares may in fact be reestablished.
Of course, the dollar will likely remain the first choice for holding hard currency, and that may be true for the few who have access. But here’s the key: Bitcoin’s advantage is the lack of the need for a bank. In other words, Venezuelans who don’t have the means to move outside of its borders to open bank accounts, can trade with a currency that is accepted in any country and is quite literally a click away.
If this is so great, then why isn’t everybody doing it? The real hurdle is knowledge. The ability to trade in Bitcoin comes with the ability to use the Internet effectively. But given the rise of millennials, especially given Venezuelan demographics, this hurdle is less of a problem by the day.
We are at the stage, where most of the active people in the market are those who Mine, who in turn are faced with two options:sell their Bitcoins or just hold them hoping for it to go up in value. As more and more people turn to it, the more you will see it shift towards trading goods and services as well. Hopefully in doing so, we can move closer to reestablishing economic freedom for Venezuelans.