One of the biggest experiments in bringing cryptocurrencies to the mainstream is taking place in the small Central American nation of El Salvador. Earlier this summer, the country’s legislative assembly authorized granting Bitcoin status as legal tender inside El Salvador beginning September 7th. One month after Bitcoin joined the U.S. dollar as the second official currency in the country, what can be said of the project so far?
This morning, Reuters took up the question of Bitcoin adoption in the country and discovered that the initiative has boosted use of the cryptocurrency, but that increase in use has come with more than a few “headaches” for many Salvadorans who have attempted to withdraw cash from Bitcoin wallets or make other transactions with the digital asset.
On the adoption front, Forbes reported late this week that the Bitcoin project has resulted in more Salvadorans having digital, Bitcoin wallets than traditional bank accounts. According to the article, approximately three million Salvadorans have downloaded Chivo, the new, government-sponsored digital wallet to facilitate Bitcoin transactions. This adds up to 46% of the country’s 6.8 million population. “By contrast,” Forbes noted, “as of 2017, only 29% of Salvadorans had bank accounts.” The Forbes account also observed that Chivo is not the only option available to those seeking to transact in the cryptocurrency; the availability of other digital wallets suggests that the estimates on early Bitcoin adoption by El Salvador’s citizens could be significantly higher.
El Salvador president and long-time Bitcoin backer Nayib Bukele boasted recently of negotiations with the country’s largest gas stations to offer reduced prices for those paying for gasoline using the Chivo app. But widespread adoption by the country’s retailers will still be one of the initiative’s biggest hurdles. Part of this issue is likely timing- a Reuters story reported that, according to the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development, 12% of consumers have used Bitcoin in the month since the Bitcoin Law was implemented, and that 93% of the 233 companies it surveyed were reporting no payments in Bitcoin over the same time period. But another part of the issue may be easily explained by Chivo itself, which provides instant conversion from Bitcoin to dollars – meaning Salvadorans who own Bitcoin can still readily pay for transactions in dollars if they choose to.
Nevertheless, early indications are that the project may accomplish its most important role of promoting financial inclusion – especially among the country’s poorer, rural-based citizenry. While some in the business community remain skeptical – and more aggressive opponents of the measure have resorted to vandalizing and defacing Chivo ATMs – others point to the possible use of Chivo as a way for expat Salvadorans living in places like the U.S. to send money to family still in El Salvador as a use case that could help drive Bitcoin adoption in the country. Potential cost savings of using Chivo instead of traditional money transfer services – as well as the Salvadoran government’s willingness to incentivize Chivo use with Bitcoin bonuses of up to $30 – could help Bukele’s Bitcoin brainchild sustain the momentum it already has achieved in its first 30 days.
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