Countries across Latin America are embracing cryptocurrencies, mainly bitcoin and the increasingly popular ethereum, which could present major opportunities for both the continent and the digital currency.
According to the recent data in Coin.dance, a bitcoin informational portal, the Weekly Local BitcoinsVolume saw huge spikes from about mid-May to the end of June worldwide this year, including Latin America. This was particularly true for Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela. Argentina and Colombia also saw spikes in the same time period but less marked.
Argentina has typically been the regional leader in bitcoin, but that’s starting to change. Juan Diego Porras is a bitcoin speculator in Ecuador, who also runs free, daily classes teaching anyone who’s interested in knowing how to get involved in the cryptocurrency market. According to him, there has been a major increase in local interest lately, especially as the economy is recovering from a long recession period and people are looking for alternative ways to make money. In Ecuador, the use of cryptocurrencies as payment methods has been banned by the government, but that hasn’t stopped people from buying and selling it.
Apart from trading, cryptocurrencies could also offer major practical benefits for locals.
First, these currencies offer alternatives to the traditional banking sector that has long ignored much of the population. According to the latest figures by the World Bank, as of 2014, 49% of adults across Latin America and Caribbean were found to not have bank accounts, while the number of those ineligible for credit cards is even higher. What they do have is access to smartphones and computers, making entry into cryptocurrency market actually easier and faster than getting a bank account, according to bitcoin speculators. (As of now, there are various ways to buy cryptocurrencies with an online wallet, including cash, personal checks and wire transfers, as well as credit or debit cards).
Cryptocurrencies also offer easier and cheaper ways to transfer money across countries compared to banks or money transfer operators. This is a key point, in an area where remittance payments from abroad play a major role in local economies. But, transfers typically cost at least 6% of the amount being sent, according to an IMF study, which is a large chunk. (http://bit.ly/2f9tHQk)
Spencer Bogart, Managing Director and Head of Research at Blockchain Capital, suggested that entry into the cryptocurrency market for these people could change how the currency is used. In the U.S., for example, most people have a credit card, which is easier to use than bitcoin, so it’s not so easy to see bitcoin as a viable alternative. However, if you’re an unbanked person without a credit card, suddenly this seems like a useful transaction alternative, not simply an investment.
But cryptocurrencies also offer extra security where there is a high level of distrust in the local economy and politicians. In Ecuador, speculators such as Porras and Diego Saá, both said they trust bitcoin more than the local banking sector, especially after the 1999 financial crisis that plummeted the economy, lead to a devaluation of the local Sucre currency and adaptation of the dollar, and resulted in the closure of several banks.
When asked about the volatility in the bitcoin market, Porras said he’s used to it by now, adding, “What worries me more is having my money in the bank.”
Bitcoin of course isn’t completely innocent. It’s long been known as the currency of choice for the black market, along with other more anonymous cryptocurrencies. It was also the demanded payment option for the ransomeware attacks earlier this year on computers worldwide, and one man was recently arrested for using Bitcoin to launder billions of dollars. But according to Porras, this is not so much a problem with Bitcoin, as it is a problem with people and how they chose to use it.
But according to Porras, this is not so much a problem with Bitcoin, as it is a problem with people and how they chose to use it.
Places like Argentina, Brazil and Venezuela, which have seen extremely high inflation numbers and political instability recently, have also seen a different use for Bitcoin. According to Saa, people in Venezuela have cheap electricity because of government subsidies, so they’re taking advantage of that to start large bitcoin mining operations. This is how they get around the government’s currency restrictions that control the amount of U.S. dollars people can withdraw.
One Brazilian doctor recently told Boggart that he takes a break from his practice once a week to serve as a bitcoin consultant, where he helps people move portions of their wealth into bitcoin. As the country continues to go through one of its worst recessions in history, people are terrified of wealth confiscation so they are looking for ways to preserve some value, he explained.
With such a growing potential in the Latin American market, the question isn’t what bitcoin can do for Latin America, but what will the entrance of these emerging economies into the cryptocurrency markets do for bitcoin? Not only is there potential for a huge boom in interest in cryptocurrencies here, which could help stabilize the volatile market, the interest in it, or need for it, is driven by different factors than those of curious investors in the US and Europe.
Cryptocurrencies have already been on the rise in India, mainly by local startups, while bankers in Russia are calling for bitcoin to be regulated, and in Japan it already is. According to cryptocurrency.com, the countries driving bitcoin demand right now are India, Japan and China, the later increasingly using it for remittance payments.
Are these all part of the necessary push for bitcoin, and other cryptocurrencies, to find more real utility value, and really take off as a transactional currency?