From Brazil to Nigeria, people turn to Bitcoin for different reasons than most of their speculating counterparts in North America. Namely, because it’s the most advantageous way for them to conduct international transactions. Such is the case with a 28-year-old poker player in Brazil who simply goes by Felipe, for safety. Poker is a legal form of gambling in Brazil, so Felipe can use Brazilian banks and regulated exchanges to earn income from home. He dropped out of law school because playing poker against foreigners with Bitcoin to spend was more profitable than becoming a partner at a local law firm. Felipe said he now outearns his brother, a middle-tier executive at one of Brazil’s top corporations. “Bitcoin is the best medium of money exchange in the poker community,” Felipe said. “I withdraw earnings as Bitcoin, or as Tether, to a Brazilian crypto exchange and sell it there.”
Felipe said he is wary of his government because he believes the Brazilian economy will experience a catastrophic shock in the next few years. Back in 1992, President Fernando Collor de Mello was impeached after confiscating millions of civilian savings accounts to offset national debts. Felipe doesn’t want his bank account forcibly emptied when the next crisis hits. This inspires him to accumulate Bitcoin, avoiding more traditional options stocks.
“The pension funds system is completely broken,” Felipe added. “The thing with Bitcoin is, you don’t need it until you do.” Manuel Folgueiras is one of many Cuban users who joined the Bitcoin ecosystem over the past year. This 33-year-old economist, who lost his tourism industry job in 2020, now supports himself using various cryptocurrency projects.“It’s very difficult to get Bitcoin, because we don’t have access to any exchanges and there are a lot of scams. Cuban banks don’t have relationships with crypto exchanges,” Folgueiras said. “Now I use Bitcoin for both savings and income, through trading arbitrage. We have to use a VPN and it’s very risky. If the exchange detects that you’re from Cuba, your account will get blocked.”
Global demand for Bitcoin has been surging since the pandemic began in 2020, pushing dollar-denominated prices briefly past $34,000 during the first week of January, 2021. For residents in many emerging markets, demand for Bitcoin is driven by concerns about the overall health of their national economies, not pure speculation. Some of these countries where Bitcoin markets are spiking, especially in Latin America and the Middle East, are seeing their domestic economies tailspin and are worried political controls could further threaten economic stability.
For example, since Western Union stopped operating in Cuba, more Cubans are using Bitcoin than ever before. For people in a variety of countries, pandemic policy changes reduced access to the dollar-centric financial system. Folgueiras estimated he is one of roughly 80,000 people on the island involved in an unofficial brokerage business called Trust Investing, often called a Ponzi scheme by local technologists. In short, the business promises to trade cryptocurrency on behalf of “investors,” to whom they deposit lucrative returns. The project promises 200% returns, which seems impossible, and references questionable “partners” on the Trust Investing website.
Those partner companies are registered to people associated with a variety of court cases across Latin America and, both Panama’s Superintendencia del Mercado de Valores (SMV) and Spain’s National Securities Market Commission (CNMV) published warnings not to trust the Trust Investing company itself. Even Folgueiras acknowledged that many people call this business a scam. But he said returns from the Trust Investing program are helping him survive the abysmal job market. It’s a gamble whether the company will give him returns or run away with his money, a risk he’s willing to take.
Plus, Folgueiras added, any form of Bitcoin business in Cuba is already “very risky.” There aren’t many regulated, trustworthy exchanges openly serving Cubans today, due to U.S. sanctions. Aside from the remittance startup, BitRemesas, the last compliance-oriented startup that tried serving this market shut down in 2019. As such, many Cubans turn to questionable schemes, or WhatsApp, instead.
“Cubans get Bitcoin via WhatsApp groups, peer-to-peer trading. The most popular mobile wallets are Coinomi, Enjin Wallet and Trust Wallet, because most people in Cuba only use a cell phone. It’s a mobile-only market,” Folgueiras said. “Bitcoin changed my life in a positive way and became an important source of income. Cryptocurrencies are also an interesting way for Cubans to shop online and send international payments or remittances.”