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El Salvador president wants Bitcoin as legal tender

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele gestures from behind a lectern.
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele, 39, has maintained approval ratings above 90%, but has raised international concerns about his anti-democratic tendencies.
(Associated Press)

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele announced in a recorded message played at a Bitcoin conference in Miami on Saturday that next week he will send legislation to the country’s congress that would make the cryptocurrency legal tender in the Central American nation.

The 39-year-old president, who has been criticized for his anti-democratic maneuvers but has maintained approval ratings above 90%, characterized it as an idea that could help El Salvador move forward.

“Next week I will send to congress a bill that will make Bitcoin a legal tender in El Salvador,” Bukele said. “In the short term this will generate jobs and help provide financial inclusion to thousands outside the formal economy, and in the medium and long term we hope that this small decision can help us push humanity at least a tiny bit into the right direction.”

The U.S. dollar is El Salvador’s official currency. About one-quarter of El Salvador’s citizens live in the United States, and last year, despite the pandemic, they sent home more than $6 billion in remittances.

Bukele’s New Ideas party holds a supermajority in the new congress seated May 1, giving any legislative proposal from the president a strong likelihood of passage.

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With his carefully crafted social media presence and populist politics, Nayib Bukele has become one of the most popular politicians on Earth. Now just one question remains: What does he want?

Additional details of the plan were not released. But Bukele in subsequent messages on Twitter, his preferred mode of communication, noted that Bitcoin could be “the fastest growing way to transfer 6 billion dollars a year in remittances.” He said that a big chunk of those money transfers were currently lost to intermediaries and with Bitcoin more than a million low-income families could benefit.

He also said 70% of El Salvador’s population does not have a bank account and works in the informal economy. Bitcoin could improve financial inclusion, he said.

Riding his high popularity and his party’s dominant performance in Feb. 28 elections, Bukele has concentrated power, raising concerns internationally about his authoritarianism. His party’s supermajority in congress ousted the justices of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court on May 1, and then replaced the attorney general.

El Salvador’s meme-loving, press-hating autocratic president, Nayib Bukele

The justices and attorney general had been critical of some of Bukele’s measures during the pandemic, including a mandatory stay-at-home order and containment centers where those caught violating the policy were detained.

While enjoying a good relationship with former President Trump, who similarly was criticized for authoritarian tendencies, Bukele has had a much more tense relationship with the administration of President Biden.

Last month, the White House special envoy for the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Ricardo Zúñiga, said during a visit to El Salvador that the U.S. government would like to see the Salvadoran government reverse the moves against the court and the attorney general. Bukele said that would not happen.

Bukele’s concentration of power, attacks on critics and open disdain for checks on his power have raised concerns about El Salvador’s path. However, Bukele has a wide base of support in part due to the failures of the country’s traditional parties who ruled during the last 30 years and to his ability to provide short-term benefits.

Bukele has been praised for aggressively obtaining COVID-19 vaccines and running an efficient vaccination program, far more successful than El Salvador’s neighbors.


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