In June, El Salvador became the first country ever to recognise the cryptocurrency Bitcoin as legal tender, just days after millennial President Nayib Bukele – who defines himself on Twitter as “officially the coolest president in the world” – announced his cool crypto-vision at a Bitcoin extravaganza in Miami.
As of September, all Salvadoran businesses will be required to accept payment in Bitcoin as well as the US dollar, which was itself hurriedly adopted as the domestic currency in 2001 under similarly dubious circumstances.
The new Bitcoin bill hurtled through the Salvadoran legislature in five hours – which at least meant Bukele did not have to send the national army and police into the parliament building to threaten lawmakers, as he did in February 2020 when he was not getting his way.
Rather than address impoverished Salvadorans whose tax money and livelihoods will now be gambled on an inconceivably volatile cryptocurrency, Bukele took to a Twitter Spaces livestream with two of his brothers to tell foreign investors about the beachfront property and other perks awaiting them in Bitcoin wonderland.
In an article for the Salvadoran investigative news outlet El Faro, economist Carlos Acevedo – former president of the Central Reserve Bank of El Salvador – compared Bitcoinisation with playing roulette in Las Vegas, and invoked the reported words of 17th-century mathematician Sir Isaac Newton: “I can calculate the movement of stars, but not the madness of men.”
Bukele himself incidentally managed to combine themes of outer space and madness when, in April 2020, he updated his Twitter profile picture to an image of him face-masked in a chair atop a spaceship. This was shortly after he had tweeted that “the rumours of my kidnapping by aliens are completely unfounded”.
At the very least, Bukele’s intergalactic antics served as a useful distraction from his earthly activities. With the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, these evolved to encompass things like throwing thousands of perceived violators of the quarantine into unsanitary containment centres – which, naturally, quickly became COVID hotspots.
An adherent to the tradition of governing by tweet – popularised by previous US madman-in-chief Donald Trump, whom Bukele once lauded as “very nice and cool” – the Salvadoran leader utilised the social media platform to authorise the “use of lethal force” by soldiers and police against gang members who were allegedly exploiting the pandemic to wreak havoc.
In a country already notorious for extrajudicial executions by law enforcement personnel, the presidential carte blanche entailed predictable results. In one case, as a Bloomberg opinion article noted, “security forces mistook a young woman who’d gone shopping for a Mother’s Day present for a criminal gang member and shot her dead”.
On top of that, Bukele’s press office triumphantly tweeted scenes from Salvadoran jails, where the president’s pandemic strategy was essentially to pile hundreds of underwear-clad prisoners on top of each other.
For Salvadorans imprisoned in Bukele’s current Bitcoin experiment, meanwhile, the future is looking increasingly bleak – particularly as Bukele undertakes to eradicate all checks on his power, such as by overseeing in May the spontaneous removal of five Supreme Court judges and the nation’s attorney general.
In his latest Twitter profile picture, Bukele is rocking the so-called laser eyes that have come to denote members of the Bitcoin cult. He has furthermore updated his Twitter bio in English to “President of the Republic of The Saviour”, the literal translation of El Salvador.
It is anyone’s guess, however, how Salvadorans will be saved by the inevitable conversion of their country into a haven for money laundering and tax evasion, where the collective wet dream of international Bitcoin groupies is prioritised over the ability of Salvadoran families to put food on their tables.
Often sporting backward baseball caps and other “cool” paraphernalia, the 39-year-old Bukele – a former advertising executive and founder, in 2017, of the Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas) political party – has in fact long marketed himself as the veritable saviour of El Salvador, casting his party as a much-needed break from the corrupt two-party system that had prevailed since the termination of the Salvadoran civil war in 1992.
Never mind that the Bukele administration itself just expelled an anti-corruption commission from the country.
Anyway, putting a backward baseball cap on fascism does not make it a new idea.
It bears recalling that the vast majority of lethal violence during the 12-year civil war, which killed more than 75,000 Salvadorans, was perpetrated by a right-wing military along with associated paramilitary groups and death squads. The United States injected billions of dollars into the conflict to ensure a capitalist victory – ie the maintenance of the obscene economic inequality that had spawned the war in the first place.
In the end, try as Bukele might to sell Bitcoinisation as a super-cool, ultramodern initiative that will propel El Salvador onto the global stage (the virtual Bitcoin wallet that is being shoved down Salvadoran throats is even called Chivo, slang for “cool”), the prospect of having the poorest sectors of society foot the bill for elite tyranny is, well, not “new” either.
Just before the pandemic, I spent several months in the Salvadoran capital of San Salvador, and was present in the city during the aforementioned February 2020 militarisation of the parliament. Bukele eventually called off the siege, claiming that God had told him to have “patience” – the deity being a handy ally in a country where religion is pathologically relied upon as a distraction from mass misery.
One cannot help but recall other upstanding global leaders who have enjoyed a direct line of communication with higher beings – such as ex-US President George W Bush, whom God allegedly instructed to annihilate Afghanistan and Iraq. Isaac Newton’s words again come to mind.
God’s blessings have no doubt assisted in Bukele’s sky-high approval ratings – even as he is effectively waging war on his own population. To be sure, the present era of social media addiction has also proved auspicious for a president who believes countries can be run by mobile phones.
But as El Salvador’s Bitcoin messiah continues to bet relentlessly on Salvadoran lives, perhaps it is time for that spaceship to schedule a pick-up.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.