El Salvador, the small Central American nation that made history just over a year ago when it made Bitcoin (BTC) legal tender, recently marked its first year of BTC adoption.
The Salvadoran government touted BTC as a tool to attract foreign investment, create new jobs and cut reliance on the United States dollar in the country’s economy at the time of adoption. Many BTC proponents and the libertarian community rallied behind the small nation despite mounting pressure from global organizations such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) to remove BTC as a legal tender.
A lot has changed over the past year since El Salvador became the first “Bitcoin nation.” Enthusiasm and public interest rose immediately after the recognition of BTC, with the price surging to new highs.
Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele joined the growing league of Bitcoin proponents to buy several market dips and even reaped the benefits of their BTC purchase in the early days as the country built schools and hospitals with its profits.
As market conditions turned bearish, however, the frequency of BTC purchases slowed down, and the president, who was often seen interacting with the crypto community on Twitter and sharing future Bitcoin endeavors, cut back his social media interactions significantly.
El Salvador has purchased 2,301 BTC since last September for about $103.9 million. That Bitcoin is presently worth roughly $45 million. The most recent purchase was made in mid-2022 when the nation bought 80 BTC at $19,000 a piece.
As the price of BTC tanked, critics who have long been raising concerns about a crypto bubble felt validated, with several comments along the lines of “I told you so.” However, market experts believe El Salvador’s BTC experiment is far from a failure.
El Salvador’s Bitcoin Volcanic bond, a project meant to raise $1 billion from investors to build a Bitcoin city, has already been delayed on numerous occasions now and skepticism is growing not just around the project but on the overall BTC adoption itself.
Samson Mow, a Bitcoin entrepreneur who played a key role in designing the Bitcoin Volcanic bond — also called the Volcanic token — told Cointelegraph that contrary to common outside perceptions, El Salvador is building through the bear market. He noted that the Volcanic bond was delayed due to several reasons and is currently awaiting the passage of a digital securities law. He explained:
“We’re still waiting on the new digital securities laws to go to congress, and once passed, El Salvador can start the capital raise for the Bitcoin Bonds. I’m hopeful that it happens before the end of this year. Much like Bitcoin companies, El Salvador is focused on building through the bear market. I can’t see President Bukele not stacking more at these prices.”
The BTC price recorded a new all-time-high of $68,789 just a month after El Salvador’s adoption on Nov. 10. Since then, however, the price has tanked by over 70% and currently trading at around $19,000. Many critics believe that the future of the Volcanic bond and its native token is highly dependent on the crypto market and thus it could only gain traction during bull markets.
Paolo Ardoino, chief technical officer at Bitfinex, told Cointelegraph that the Volcanic tokens would generate interest from investors irrespective of the market conditions, he explained:
“The Volcanic token will be the first of its kind. While investor appetite for new offerings is typically greater during a bull market, we are confident that the unique proposition that this token represents will garner significant interest regardless of market conditions. The Volcanic token has widespread support in the Bitcoin community and there is manifestly a great appetite for the offering regardless of if we are in a bear or bull market.”
Bitfinex is the key infrastructure partner of the El Salvador government responsible for processing transactions from the sale of Volcanic tokens.
Bitcoin adoption boosted remittance and tourism
While critics have called El Salvador’s Bitcoin experiment a failure since the start, proponents see it as a revolution of sorts and believe El Salvador’s adoption could create a domino effect for other nations with similar financial challenges such as a high number of unbanked citizens and significant remittance volumes.
Bukele has previously mentioned that the primary focus of recognizing BTC was to offer banking services to more than 80% of unbanked Salvodrans. Within six months of the law passing, the country’s national Bitcoin wallet managed to onboard four million users, ensuring that 70% of the unbanked population got access to payment and remittance services without having to go to a bank.
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Aarti Dhapte, a senior research analyst at Market Research Future, told Cointelegraph that El Salvador’s BTC adoption has proven a success on several fronts, be it banking the unbanked or boosting tourism:
“We should accept that the digital currency has helped the Central American nation of El Salvador rebuild its tourism industry, despite the country still having difficulty enduring the long crypto winter. According to information from the Ministry of Tourism, El Salvador’s spending on travel has increased by 81% in the post-pandemic period. In 2021 the nation welcomed 1.2 million visitors and 1.1 million during the first half of 2022.”
Statista data shows that more than 9% of El Salvador’s GDP is made up of the tourism industry, so a near doubling of tourism is a significant boon for the country.
Share of tourism in El Salvador’s GDP. Source: Statista
Apart from tourism and offering financial services to the unbanked, BTC adoption has also proven beneficial in terms of cross-border remittances, cutting transaction costs significantly.
The El Salvador Central Reserve Bank estimates that from January to May 2022, remittances from citizens residing abroad totaled more than $50 million. The adoption of Bitcoin and the Chivo wallet, an initiative supported by the government of El Salvador, helped boost Lightning Network transactions by 400% in 2022.
The downsides of Bitcoin adoption
The biggest downside of El Salvador’s Bitcoin adoption has been macroeconomic factors that have led to a decline in BTC price along with the amount of pushback it has gotten from around the world. The pushback wouldn’t matter in a bull market, but being a small nation-state with financial challenges, the country cannot afford to be on bad terms with international monetary organizations.
Right now, the vast majority of El Salvador’s Bitcoin was purchased at a higher value than it currently enjoys. Bitcoin has been tracking closely with traditional assets, like the stock market — particularly tech stocks. They, too, have taken a beating this year as the world tries to cope with the aftermath of pandemic-related government handouts.
Beyond the price of Bitcoin, the bigger problem for El Salvador is how the international financial world views the move.
The country’s move toward Bitcoin has limited the country’s access to traditional financial markets, causing Bukele some real problems in financing the repayment of its bond obligations. Moody’s, earlier this year, credited disagreements about Bitcoin as a reason El Salvador was having difficulty coming to terms with the IMF.
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Richard Gardner, CEO at institutional infrastructure service provider Modulus, told Cointelegraph that maybe in five years, Bukele’s decision won’t look that bad, but currently, it’s controversial:
“Bukele’s move to Bitcoin doesn’t look wise. Even with high inflation for the USD, Bitcoin has ultimately failed as an inflation hedge, given its dip. However, we’re looking at a one-year snapshot during a recession. For a country like El Salvador, access to funding through organizations like the IMF is vital. That makes Bukele’s Bitcoin gambit difficult to defend.”
El Salvador’s future depends a lot on the success of the delayed Volcanic bonds, which could bring billions in revenue and set a precedent for others to follow. Until the launch of the bond, the outside world will continue to measure its success based on its BTC purchases.