Diana Aguilar, Venezuelan Journalist for CoinDesk & Host of Blockcode
This week’s Money Season guest on the Clothesline is Diana Aguilar, a journalist and fellow podcaster living inside the largely untold Venezuelan story…
She’s risking (perhaps her life and) her livelihood to speak out and tell the truth of what it’s really like, how Bitcoin might not be the crypto-hero it’s media-ed out to be and how the Government-backed cryptocurrency ‘Petro’ is a false promise and a farce.
(Please note: this interview was recorded in March 2019. Since then, the situation in Venezuela has escalated and we understand Diana Aguilar has left the country.)
How Is Venezuela At The Moment?
Diana says that the media portrays a romantic crypto ideal that citizens are using Bitcoin to survive, which in a sense could be true, but in reality, not many places accept Bitcoin or other cryptocurrencies, and with a population of more than 30 million, not many people actually have any in the first place.
This is especially the case with older, less computer-literate generations who wouldn’t have the first clue how to acquire, store or spend cryptocurrency from an electronic wallet, let alone know what to do if they’d been hacked or if there’d been a collapse in the system, as has happened to Diana herself recently.
No. Bitcoin isn’t always the saving grace in devastated Venezuela it’s painted as being in the media.
And with electricity black-outs like the one that was experienced recently, people were not able to use any form of digital cash – not debit or credit cards, or get Venezuelan Bolivar out of an ATM. That meant starving, sharing with neighbours and friends and waiting a week or longer for the lights to come back on…
“There’s that perception from outside that Bitcoin is somehow saving Venezuela. I do not share that opinion.”
She says the US dollar is king, and whatever price is on items in the supermarket, everyone is constantly working out what the actual price is in US dollars.
Walking around with Venezuelan currency, the Bolivar, is useless and an “abuse of trees” as the fluctuations in price and sheer cost of things (due to crippling hyperinflation) from one day to the next is so dramatic, you can’t take for granted buying the same thing for two days running at the same price.
“We’re calculating all the prices that we see in the supermarket…in dollars. You know, if something cost 40,000 Bolivars, we already say ‘that’s like $15.’”
During our chat, we ended up discussing the price of milk. If a family wanted to buy some milk for their child, at the time of interviewing in March 2019, it would have cost approximately $1.18.
*The minimum wage is $6.00 per month*
One carton of milk would cost more than one sixth of the income for the family for a month…
Excerpt from an CNBC article about Amnesty International and Violations of Human Rights:
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has been widely condemned for overseeing one of the worst human rights crises in the country’s history.
Citizens of the crisis-torn nation are struggling to cope with widespread food shortages, the collapse of its traditional currency and hyperinflation — which the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has forecast to hit 13,000 percent in 2018.
Meanwhile, almost 75 percent of Venezuelans are reportedly suffering from weight loss and unemployment in the South American country is expected to skyrocket to 32 percent by 2022.
Amnesty International said the crisis in the South American nation had reached “breaking point.”
Are People Pulling Together And Helping Each Other Out Or Stealing From Each Other? How Are People Coping?
Diana explains that Venezuela traditionally has been a very wealthy country, rich in natural resources with a population of highly educated and sophisticated thinkers.
Being in what she terms a “survival situation” for the past 20 years however, things are getting harder and harder to manage. Droves of Venezuelans are leaving: fleeing to other countries and creating new lives which means generally leaving behind loved ones, family and friends, and dealing with what is called survivor guilt.
There are stories Dr Alison Thompson tells of massaging the feet of Venezuelans who’ve walked literally thousands of miles to get to the border. No cars, no petrol, no food or water, no money just bare feet and hungry children.
Those that stay are working full time (if they can find jobs), and accepting 2-3 other online gigs paying maybe US 50c to $1.50 an hour, as that still pays way more than what they make on the local minimum wage.
“Only when you are put into a survival situation, [do] you know how it gets… Trying to explain the situation is… it still amazes me…
“A lot of people are using the internet to have jobs. That’s how we’re coping. I mean, most of the people I know have to have 2 or 3 jobs online.”
Is The Venezuelan Population Planning On Adopting The Petro Cryptocurrency?
The Petro has been portrayed online as being a very positive step forward for the crypto market, showing the rest of the world how a government can actually implement and adopt a cryptocurrency.
The uncomfortable reality is that it doesn’t appear to add up to much, according to Diana. She says it’s backed by a resource that hasn’t been pulled out of the ground yet, and which government officials ‘hope’ exists.
“When you read the technical paper, it says the value of the Petro is mostly or totally sustained on resources here in Venezuela that lie beneath our soil, but that are not yet discovered.
“Everybody knows that Venezuela has a lot of natural resources, and it’s just easy to assume that we have so much that you can basically just promise that you have enough to sustain [borrowing].
“And just say to everybody that you can pay for whatever they want to, and use that asset in the future [to pay it back].
“It’s a digital asset based on hope and an undiscovered natural resource.”
Diana goes on to say that in some cases, the government is forcing people to adopt the Petro, even though they can’t use the currency to survive.
“People are not fond of it or using it because of the way it’s being used right now, it’s mostly propaganda. And what is being done right now by the current administration is to try to make people use it by forcing them to pay for certain things exclusively in Petro.”
But Do You Know Of Mining Happening And Is It True That The Government Is Closing Those People Down?
“Mining is like faith. You can feel it, but you can see it.”
Electricity is cheap in Venezuela so some people are able to mine Bitcoin without too many costs and then swap it for US dollars in order to survive, basically. Local Bitcoins, an online platform for exchanging Bitcoin for Fiat is very popular in Venezuela. (It used to be anonymous, with an escrow service to hold funds until proof of each currency was produced by each participant in the deal, but no longer so, you need to register all of your personal deets before being able to transact now.)
“We use the platform, Local Bitcoins, which is for an exchange and we use it here a lot basically because you receive Bitcoin and you can turn it into US dollars… Because cash is very scarce, that has been the biggest flaw. We saw it during the blackout. It’s kind of hard to pay for things when you don’t have cash and there’s no internet or light or whatsoever or any kind of power for you to show that you have.”
Can You Tell Us What Happened With The Food And Medicine Trucks Provided By Humanitarian Aid At The Colombian Border?
Online media shows some pretty horrible footage of trucks trying to cross the border controls from Colombia into Venezuela, laden with food and medical supplies for a country that’s starving and has little or no medical resources in hospitals and pharmacies. The footage shows the National Guard lighting the trucks so they burn in front of the very people needing them, including young sick children waiting for something to eat…
“In the beginning of the transition that we’re going through right now, the president of the National Assembly Juan Guaidó, [tried] to get the country out of the situation we’re in now at every single level.
“Something that must be addressed immediately of course is the humanitarian crisis we’re going through.
“One of the actions he established was to gather humanitarian aid and make it pass through the borders of Venezuela from four points [so that] it got here, because there are plenty of people who are dying of cancer, and kids starving to death.
“And what happened: the humanitarian aid was supposed to pass through that [official] person to Venezuela. It’s at that meeting when they terminated [access to Venezuela], which means they [the government] had to admit that there is a crisis.
“And when you look at who is to blame for the crisis, [nobody] wants to be [held responsible]. So the best thing they had in mind was to tell the National Guard to burn everything.”
“Three out of four trucks: huge, huge trucks full of food and medicine on fire.
“And there is live footage and there are images of people who were trying to help and they actually jumped into the trucks on fire to get the aid out, to rescue some of it before it got burned.
“Later on, the newspapers and online [media] published how many starving kids die of hunger and other illnesses because the medical aid or the food never came because it got burned or just sent back…”
Within The Venezuelan Communities, Is Everyone Generally Peaceful Or Have You Experienced Violence?
“We are like any other community.”
Diana describes Venezuelans as particularly well-educated and ‘civilised’ people caught in the nightmarish realms of political corruption and deceit spanning more than two decades.
She, being a mere 20 something, has never known any other way of living, though she concedes that it’s getting harder and harder for everyday people to get by.
“We have been brainwashed over the last two decades… even though we’re completely aware that what we’re living is wrong, and that this is a nightmare nobody deserves to live, this crisis: to live in this state of mind of paranoia and knowing that everything is corrupted.
“I could get in trouble for this conversation because I just don’t know if something happens to me, if there’ll be any justice to be done, until this is all over.
“That’s the state that we’re living today, because everyone is afraid right now. Everyone is trying to learn how to make more private their conversations because it has been revealed many times, the political police here are searching for people.
“Not so long ago. They just suddenly arrested and took into custody, not one, but two journalists and then beat another one that was from Poland, if I recall correctly. They just stopped him in the street at night and start punching him. And then nobody was ever responsible for the act, but everybody knew it was the police.”
Could You Tell Us What Money Is? And What Do You Think, Given The Nature Of The Country You Live In, Is The Future Of Money?
Diana demonstrates another form of currency, perhaps more old-school than credit, but one that’s based on trust. I’m guessing it’s a kind of IOU, a note that means ‘I can’t pay today, but you know me and I’m good for it on payday.’ Kinda ironic when Bitcoin and crypto is based on blockchain technology, a ‘trustless’ technology that circumnavigates the need for trust by having so many miners independently confirm a transaction.
“Whatever people accept in an exchange or a service. That’s what I have learned. That monies can take many forms. We have here in Venezuela a law, even a form of money, which is not even money. It’s the promise of money.”
Diana regards the future of money to be the adoption of cryptocurrency, though with some sort of clause related to the availability of electricity as she experienced first-hand being ‘moneyless’ during the blackout.
“We are now a country where everybody knows how to use an APP to transfer money: we use our phones and the Internet for everything practically everything. Once again, that’s why the blackout was so horrible because all your money, it’s on a digital platform – a digital bank platform. I mean the money online, but you cannot have it in your hand because you cannot go to a bank every day and withdrawal some of the money they [ATMs] don’t work either. So that’s a very serious situation…
“Because if you only go out with cash… I mean good luck!”
At the time of publishing, it has come to our attention that Diana is no longer in Venezuela, and although we’re not sure of her whereabouts, we would urge you to go to Third Wave Volunteers and financially support the work of Dr Alison Thompson, working currently in Venezuela helping out endless lines of starving people, walking thousands of kilometres to get to borders where they are crossing into other countries.
Bitcoin Can’t Save Venezuela: I Should Know
Here’s an excerpt from Diana’s article, Bitcoin Can’t Save Venezuela: I Should Know
Today marks a week since I left my home in Venezuela.
So, here I am, watching the news since 6 a.m., haven’t separated from my phone all day. I’m worried about my loved ones, wondering if I could have done more before leaving, but knowing I had to leave anyway.
I left everything I knew behind, but I also fled an escalating crisis that jeopardized my income as a remote worker in the crypto space, where I’ve been now for years.
For the Venezuelans using cryptocurrency as a tool to survive the economic consequences of a brutal socialist dictatorship, receiving support from the international community has been vital to the reformation process. The trouble is that this attention has quickly deteriorated into a double-edged sword: a trend.
In the last few years, Venezuela has become a favorite pop culture reference in crypto, where bystanders – usually from a privileged background and perspective – spout their ill-wisdom about Venezuelan socialism, economy and migration.
This situation is particularly common in crypto. People armed with good intentions and misinformation about how Venezuela’s economy works – or better said, how it doesn’t work – spread their confusion and often diminish an extremely painful experience being shared by millions of Venezuelans.
So let me, as someone who used bitcoin to survive in Venezuela, clear up the misconceptions: Bitcoin can’t fix the situation in Venezuela.
Diana Aguilar is both a journalist, a podcaster host of BlockCodes where she interviews people in blockchain and crypto all over the world.
Find Diana Aguilar on LinkedIn
Diana Aguilar is a writer for CoinDesk
Bitcoin Can’t Fix Venezuela: I Should Know by Diana Aguilar
Thomas Miller (also working on voluntary initiatives to help Third Wave Volunteers)
Stephen Alexander (also working on voluntary initiatives to help Third Wave Volunteers)
CBCN Article about Amnesty International & Violations of Human Rights
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