In a Bitcoin News exclusive with the founder of crypto-backed non-profit Bitcoin Venezuela, Randy Brito shared how Bitcoin has evolved over the last decade in South America to become an increasingly popular tool for freelance workers to sell their services on the global market in the absence of access to payment systems such as PayPal. Brito also discussed his own humanitarian work done to promote Bitcoin adoption in Venezuela, the trajectory of Bitcoin in the next 10 years, and why he would like to see developers work on real use cases for cryptocurrency rather than on cryptokitties.
Bitcoin’s 10-Year Journey
After researching Bitcoin in Venezuela since 2011, Brito has seen a significant shift in the number of local users and people even aware of Bitcoin. Back then, he jokes, there were only 10 people talking about it in the country and they were not even trading. In 2012, a small number of traders emerged with some grouped on the Colombian border, alongside Bitcoin mining which is gaining a strong following as well.
”It took 2 or 3 years more in 2014, 2015 for regular people to see how it could be used in Venezuela where electricity prices are very low. The first 5 or 6 years of Bitcoin’s existence in Venezuela was mostly unknown- only people with very technical knowledge or really inside the scene from the beginning were actually using Bitcoin for something,” Brito told Bitcoin News.
After 2015, the cryptocurrency was more common to see around, he said, with a growing movement surrounding it because of how it was utilized in relation to the riots in this period. Brito’s own non-profit Bitcoin Venezuela used cryptocurrency at this time to send food and medicine to protesters and street rioters. ”2015 was when most people started learning about it, after one year or so of using it to help people in the streets and even assist others leaving the country,” he shared.
A queue at Bitcoin Venezuala’s soup kitchen
Many South American countries are without access to major online payment systems such as PayPal and Venmo, so one of the primary use cases for Bitcoin has been as a way to receive international payments, with freelancers and entrepreneurs seeing an opportunity to develop their own business models around cryptocurrency acceptance.
”Argentina, for example, is known for having professional tech freelancers working in design and consultancy. Most of them used to work receiving international wire transfers or through Western Union but, there were capital controls imposed on foreign exchanges for a couple of years, meaning Bitcoin became an increasingly popular option to receive payments.”
In Venezuela, the foreign exchange controls which are meant to prop up the local Boliver currency have been running for not 2 or 3, but 14 years.
In other South American countries such as Bolivia and Chile, they also have restricted access to online payment systems as providers such as PayPal do not accept local documentation as a means of verifying the identity of the account holder. Bitcoin is being used more regularly in the region because of this limitation of financial services that operate in the continent.
A lack of real Bitcoin users
In Venezuela, Brito says, Bitcoin is not actually being used as a medium for exchange on the street. ”Even if you have smartphone and BTC wallet and try to pay for something, it’s almost impossible. Even places that say they accept cryptocurrency there is usually someone there like the owner of the store who needs to be there to accept it personally.”
Citing a report from Russia Today, he says journalists went to popular food chains in Venezuela that advertise to accept Dash but when they got there and asked to pay with the cryptocurrency, the employees said it was not possible because the owner was not there.
Brito partly attributes the lack of Bitcoin-accepting merchants to government persecution against anyone accepting currency that is not the local Bolivar: ”Even though for the last few months you are allowed to accept any other foreign currency as payment, you are obligated to do it at the exchange rate they impose, something not beneficial for the store. If they take dollars, for example, at the imposed rates they will lose money.”
Another problem for adoption is that people need smartphones, realistically running on the latest software update which most Bitcoin wallets require for security purposes. And if you are spotted with a USD200, USD300 phone, Brito says you are putting yourself at risk of mugging or even being killed on the streets of Venezuela.
Data released by the country’s national telecom providers showed that there are only 11.9 million devices in Venezuela, a country with a population of 30 million people. Currency controls mean this number is dropping even further because no one is importing smartphones into the country to sell, meaning the ones in circulation are often unbranded or not up to date. ”Most of them run on old, modified versions of Android designed for Chinese models, copies of other brands,” Brito says, not devices capable of supporting secure cryptocurrency wallets.
After a lot of hard work collaborators have completed the creation of the two water wells we’ve donated to a soup kitchen & an elderly center in #Venezuela. Kids & old ppl now have permanent access to water. Thanks!
Now let's get em food!
DM if you'd like to help us help others pic.twitter.com/BkTlcAQixJ
— Bitcoin Venezuela ⚡️ (@btcven) November 7, 2018
The Next Decade for Bitcoin
When will Venezuela even hit the bottom on security, connection, smartphones? Right now, some cities are completely disconnected from any communication system, some going without access to calls, SMS, text, 3G or even cable internet, staying weeks like this without connection to anywhere outside the city.
”If you get into that situation, there is no way you can pay with Bitcoin. What’s happening now is that cables, antennas, and wires are getting stolen by people who want to sell the copper of the cables. This is happing more regularly; it’s pretty common to see people getting beaten after getting caught stealing cables, even beaten to death by people angry that they are disconnecting them from the rest of the world. It’s happening more regularly, even daily.”
Brito is working on a mesh network of devices that would be affordable for Venezuelan citizens, with the software able to be installed in repurposed devices already existing in the country. Antennas or routers already in homes but lack connection to services such as the internet, or physical devices with restricted services could be repurposed and have the new software downloaded that would allow them to connect to each other and communicate via encrypted text messages, as well as facilitate Bitcoin transactions.
”They don’t need any other connection if the device is running the mesh software; they can connect and can transmit both messages and Bitcoin. Any device can have the software installed and is capable of connecting to others up to 5 km away, but with bigger, repurposed antennas that are basically abandoned because of the lack of service, they can be repurposed to make the range longer.”
Brito’s idea is the number of devices running will be so many, that they will be able to connect to each other in small towns and cities, while the big ones can be connected to one another via radio which can go up to 20 km distance: ”You will be able to deploy an alternative to the internet and other communication systems, capable of broadcasting Bitcoin transactions approved on the network even if there is no internet connection at all.”
Bigger devices will work basically as small computers, keeping connected and up to date with the Bitcoin blockchain through satellite. People inside the mesh will be able to see if transactions have been added to the network and approved.
Brito has not been to Venezuela since 2008 and knows he would probably get arrested if he did. He expects the government to try and restrict his mesh network concept, even as it tries to scale back internet use.
”You have to be careful about using, say a USD 1,000 dollar antenna to strengthen the network not only because it will likely get stolen, but people can also track it and get to your house, small affordable DIY devices are much more practical. They are more difficult to shut down or crack down on. Hopefully, there will be so many devices communicating with each other they will be impossible to shut down.”
Money, Brito notes, is a monopoly of the state in every country. Bitcoin takes that power out of the government and gives it to anyone capable of running a node. ”We are basically trying to achieve the same. Just like a Bitcoin node, you will be a node inside a mesh,” he says.
a Turpial ? (ESP32 LoRa) could connect to another one to join the mesh up to 3km-4km distance (~1.8 miles) in the open. You could switch antennas
A phone could only make it up to ~50m (~0.031 miles)
— Bitcoin Venezuela ⚡️ (@btcven) December 28, 2018
Hopes for 2019
Next year, Brito says he would like to see more people transacting in Bitcoin with each other in Venezuela, but that opportunity is not yet in the hands of the local people.
”If developers actually want to see adoption they should put an effort into making the wallets more accessible to those not part of the first world, those that don’t have access to smartphones at all. I would like to see developers pay more attention to what is actually needed in some places not things like cryptokitties which only end up with one thousand users globally while we have people that are not even capable of transacting or communicating with families in other countries.”
Brito concluded by sharing hopes that more people in the Bitcoin industry will focus on humanitarian efforts: ”I would like to see real use cases for actually helping people, making their lives better. I do think there are ways to do it and it’s not that costly. Bitcoin is capable of working in the worst of places, and I would like to see the resilience of it and how it can circumvent all kinds of censorship.”
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Image Courtesy: Bitcoin News, Bitcoin Venezuela