Salvadorans show support for bitcoin despite IMF criticism


A vendor hods a sign reading ‘Bitcoin accepted’ at a store in San Salvador. The IMF urged El Salvador to withdraw bitcoin as a legal tender, pointing to ‘great risks associated’ with the use of cryptocurrency, a blow to President Nayib Bukele. — AFP

Karen Hernandez sells mobile phone accessories in El Salvador and says business has been through the roof since the country started using bitcoin as legal tender.

She hopes President Nayib Bukele will ignore calls from the International Monetary Fund to drop use of the cryptocurrency.

"It has been a very, very good experience and increased (our sales). It has taken us to another level of business," the 45-year-old shopkeeper told AFP.

She owns a small store in the historic center of the capital, San Salvador, where many handmade signs announce "we accept bitcoin."

The government created a digital wallet called Chivo that lets users make and receive payments with both bitcoin and the US dollar, which the Central American country adopted in 2001 to help ensure monetary stability.

Bitcoin has been legal tender since September 2021.

Ewallet training

In the crowded streets of the capital, restaurants, hardware stores, pharmacies and even street vendors accept payment in the cryptocurrency.

Elizabeth Arevalo, 25, works at a computer store in an old building and teaches customers how to navigate the Chivo wallet so they can use it in her store.

"We give the customers a little orientation on how to use the wallet... Once they learn how to use it, they buy something from us. It's a win-win situation," Said Arevalo.

Not everyone has jumped on the bandwagon, though.

"I couldn't care less if they ditch bitcoin or not, there's no benefit to me, I only work with the dollar, I don't accept bitcoin," said banana seller Antonio Molina.

'Large risks'

On Tuesday, the IMF called on El Salvador to stop using bitcoin as legal tender.

The IMF's board warned "there are large risks associated with the use of bitcoin on financial stability, financial integrity and consumer protection," as well as with issuing bitcoin-backed bonds.

Bukele responded on Twitter with a meme from The Simpsons that said: "I see you IMF. That's very nice."

Since coming to power in June 2019, his government has purchased 1,630 bitcoins with public funds.

Last year he also announced new bitcoin bonds worth US$1bil (RM4.19bil).

Juan Carlos Perez, 40, who runs a technology and perfume store in San Salvador, says he uses bitcoin in both his personal and professional life.

"There are risks, I know that... vulnerability in the exchange rate, (no) financial market controlling it. But it's practical," said Perez as he checked the Chivo app on his telephone.

'Fragility'

El Salvador's government is trying to negotiate a US$1.3bil (RM5.45bil) loan with the IMF, which it needs to also secure other loans.

And its stance on bitcoin has not helped.

"The logical thing would be for the El Salvador government to understand the fragility of its situation," said economist Luis Membreno.

He said El Salvador's financial health "revolves around this deal" with the IMF as it also hopes to secure loans of US$400mil (RM1.67bil) each from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, and US$200mil (RM838mil) from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration.

All those loans are subject to the IMF agreement, Membreno said.

Despite its criticism, the IMF board did acknowledge that the use of cryptocurrencies could widen access to banking services in El Salvador.

Bukele "is not going to back down from a personal project of that magnitude," Membreno said.

His economy minister, Alejandro Zelaya, accused the IMF of contradicting itself by opposing bitcoin while also claiming it is in favour of "boosting financial inclusion."

"It seems that it (bitcoin) can provide financial inclusion, but you should not do it. The future does not wait for anyone #Bitcoin," Zelaya wrote on Twitter. – AFP

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