Thousands of protesters took to the streets in El Salvador a week after the Central American nation became the first in the world to adopt bitcoin as its legal currency alongside the US dollar.
Most marchers in El Salvador’s capital of San Salvador were peaceful, but some smashed and torched at least one bitcoin ATM on Wednesday, according to reports. Some wore shirts that read “NO To Bitcoin” and sprayed anti-bitcoin graffiti along protest routes. Others carried signs with the bitcoin logo crossed out.
President Nayib Bukele’s controversial rollout of a digital bitcoin wallet in the country has reportedly been plagued with issues, and the service has frequently been down for maintenance.
Bitcoin’s price tanked as much as 16 percent on the day that El Salvador adopted it — and reportedly right after the country’s government had bought 400 bitcoin, worth at the time about $21 million, making it the first country to put bitcoin on its balance sheet and hold it in its reserves.
Bukele said the country bought another 150 bitcoin after the drop.
“What the government is doing is arrogant, it is authoritarianism,” 49-year-old protester Dora Rivera told Reuters.
Wednesday’s march was the first major protest against Bukele since he took office in 2019. It took place on El Salvador’s bicentennial.
Proponents of the bitcoin law argue that it will help the 70 percent of the country’s citizens who don’t have bank accounts access financial services.
They also say citizens living abroad who want to send money back to their families will be able to use bitcoin to avoid pricey money transfer services. About a quarter of El Salvador’s citizens live in the US and last year, they sent home more than $6 billion in remittances, Bukele has previously said.
But critics say that adopting bitcoin is a flashy ploy by Bukele’s party to distract from the country’s severe economic issues.
“Bitcoin was a very big economic decision, and it was done totally illogically, sent to congress and passed the same day,” opposition lawmaker Claudia Ortiz told Bloomberg. “We are going through a profound fiscal crisis with high cost of living and unemployment and the government’s response, instead of serious economic policy, is to adopt bitcoin as legal tender.”
On Twitter, Bukele claimed that the vast majority of protesters were complicit in vandalism.
“They say the ‘vandalism’ was the work of ‘infiltrators,’ but there has been vandalism in ALL their demonstrations,” Bukele wrote. “And why weren’t there any shouts of ‘stop,’ or ‘Don’t do that’?”
The protesters — who organizers estimated numbered about 4,500 — were also marching against what they said were power grabs by Bukele.
In May, Bukele’s party fired five judges on the constitutional panel of the country’s supreme court and filled their spots with friendlier replacements. Shortly afterward, the court tossed aside what had long been interpreted as a constitutional ban on consecutive presidential terms, setting the stage for Bukele to potentially seek re-election in 2024.
With Will Feuer, wires