Peter Thiel, the arch-capitalist fifty-four-year-old cofounder of PayPal, was throwing one-hundred-dollar bills from the main stage, trying to signify their unimportance. When members of the crowd rushed to grab them, Thiel appeared shocked. “I thought you guys were supposed to be Bitcoin maximalists!” Raging against the “finance gerontocracy”—which, of course, had helped to make him very rich—Thiel derided legendary investor Warren Buffett as the “sociopathic grandpa from Omaha.” (Tell us about your childhood, Peter). Also on the dais were luminaries like Jordan Peterson, the Canadian psychologist who found his true, and truly lucrative, calling as an alt-right provocateur who encouraged young men to clean their rooms.
In the hall backstage, we passed Tucker Carlson, deep in expository discourse to some trailing microphones and cameras. On the conference floor, picking up on the trend, Bitcoin influencer Max Keiser, a vocal supporter of Salvadoran president Nayib Bukele, tore up some dollar bills with another attendee—caught on smartphone video, of course. They immediately posted the video, cackling at their own daring, their ultimate, performative disregard for real money.
All these histrionics felt choreographed and banal. For me, the conference was less about experiencing loud, overwrought paeans to the glory of Bitcoin than studying some of the industry’s leading personalities in their seemingly candid moments (which admittedly could be rare). It was also about retail investors, the average folks who had committed their lives to this stuff. I wanted to understand what attracted people to the Bitcoin story.
But first, I wanted some merch. Across the sprawling Miami Beach Convention Center, the product and sales pitches ranged from free NFTs to getting in on the ground floor of the next ICO (“initial coin offering”) that seemed a lot like the last ICOs. A DAO (“decentralized autonomous organization”) promised an investment scheme to “democratize yachting.” Crypto mining machines sold for thousands of dollars each. There was a surprising amount of art, loosely defined. One painter was selling a knockoff of a Jeff Koons-style balloon Bitcoin dog fucking—doggystyle, naturally—another dog representing the US dollar. We passed Panties for Bitcoin, a father-son undergarments business that was mostly an exercise in enthusiastic branding. Bars sold overpriced drinks matched by concession stands that sold overpriced stadium food. A mechanical bull, booth babes, endless giveaways, all of it filmed and tweeted and Instagrammed from every angle. In front of a small crowd, I did some push-ups for the Lord and received a “Jesus for Bitcoin” T-shirt.
If you ignored the formal hysterics and instead talked to regular folks milling about the conference, Bitcoin Miami sometimes felt like just another trade show. Big and energetic, full of boozy salesmen talking about how Bitcoin had changed their lives, with sponsorships adorning every surface, it was a Potemkin village of American consumerism and gambling addiction masquerading, in typically humble crypto fashion, as the future of the entire financial system. Eight-dollar Budweisers were offered for sale underneath the fifty-foot-tall Bitcoin volcano that burped out steam with all the grandeur of a high school science fair project. The volcano was meant to celebrate the issuance of El Salvador’s Bitcoin Bonds and tee up President Nayib Bukele’s keynote address. Sadly for the attendees, on the first day of the conference, Bukele canceled his trip to the United States to deal with the growing unrest in his country.
At the conference, the featured speaker was in the wind, but the featured volcano still spewed smoke and the bar remained well-stocked. I ordered a Budweiser and asked if I could pay in Bitcoin. Unfortunately, their Bitcoin-into-real-money machine was down, but they accepted my American dollars that conference notables seemed eager to rip up in protest. Maybe TradFi still has its uses.
Outside the convention center, all eyes were drawn to an imposing sculpture of a swaggering creature known as the Bitcoin Bull, an homage to the Wall Street original. Fashioned from thick glossy plates of material that seemed like an unholy amalgam of metal and plastic, this creature was no joke. Replete with laser eyes and a fierce stare, the bull was slick: a gleaming, furious testament to capitalist America’s macho brand of innovation. “In Miami we have big balls,” said Francis Suarez, Miami’s Bitcoin bro mayor, who has toyed with the idea of abolishing taxes and funding the city through a nearly worthless token known as MiamiCoin.
There was just one problem: Contra Suarez, the bull did not have big balls. Yes, the ferocious Bitcoin Bull was apparently of the castrated variety. I gently asked a few folks posing for pictures beside him if they had ever heard of incels. The confused responses were reassuring.
The local faithful, while zealous, were peaceful. No one yelled at me at the Bitcoin Conference or denounced me as a nonbeliever. Some people overflowed with solicitous generosity—there was at least one strip club invitation that I believe wasn’t a covert marketing stunt. The lack of open conflict was almost a letdown—and an indicator of my own latent narcissism, perhaps. Everyone was just excited to talk to some guy from TV that had cameras following him around.
I can’t say that the conversations were always coherent or that my interlocutors and I existed on the same metaphysical plane, but I learned some things about what it meant to devote one’s life to Bitcoin. After talking to folks such as Mear One—an artist and former Occupy Wall Street participant whose signature oil painting, apparently well known among crypto heads, envisioned a cabal of Jewish bankers against the ascendant righteous forces of Bitcoin—it was clear I needed to broaden my view of what constituted the “community.”
There are many different ways one could define the crypto community, but the cynic in me would say there were none, not really. The majority of the people in Miami seemed only loosely tied to one another through commerce. They had few other bonds to speak of besides a utopian vision of financial freedom. To me, they were a projection of the timeless American fantasy: getting rich for free as quickly as possible. They flew to Miami to perform the rituals of multi-level marketing-style salesmanship and gladhanding. Also, there were parties.
The physical and symbolic centerpiece of the conference—the Bitcoin volcano—was meant to represent the issuance of El Salvador’s Bitcoin Bond. The idea was that the Bitcoin true believers would invest in bonds that would finance the mining of Bitcoin by harnessing geothermal energy from a volcano (Volcán de Conchagua) on the eastern edge of the country. A gleaming Bitcoin City would be built, along with another international airport to service the new metropolis. Nayib Bukele, the marketing-pro-turned-crypto-bro president of the small Central American country, had announced the bond scheme in November 2021 alongside slick digital renderings of what Bitcoin City might one day look like. There was a lot of gold. Bukele, a devotee of Twitter who had more than a little in common with Trump, seemed to share the former US president’s Gaddafi-esque aesthetic.
Bukele clearly tried to time the volcano bond’s issuance to coincide with the conference in Miami for maximum publicity value, but unfortunately, by the time the conference was actually held only a few months later, the domestic situation in El Salvador had deteriorated significantly. Gang violence was on the rise—a result of a breakdown in a secret agreement between the government and the major gangs—and Bukele declared martial law. The bond issuance seemed to be indefinitely postponed. Bukele bailed as the conference’s headliner and recast himself as a field marshal leading a war against gangs.
Despite their political figurehead being suddenly absent, the conference attendees appeared to pay no mind. The other speakers—Thiel, Peterson, Kevin O’Leary of Shark Tank fame, NFL quarterback Aaron Rodgers, and tennis star Serena Williams, among others—filled the Bukele void and issued the requisite bits of crypto enthusiasm. O’Leary was particularly bullish, claiming that as soon as regulatory clarity arrived, crypto would explode again: “The spigots of capital are going to flood into this sector, like you’ve never seen. So for those of us that can invest in it now—you’re getting ahead of what’s going to be a huge wave of interest when policy occurs.”
We saw many crypto bros unironically sporting the black El Salvador Bitcoin Bond T-shirts that had apparently been printed prior to Bukele’s cancellation and distributed widely. Like the pre-printed shirts of the losing World Series team, they found their way to a willing host who was unconcerned with their accuracy. The Bitcoin bros didn’t care—they hadn’t been to El Salvador. It was free merch and it represented a cause that, at least in theory, they believed in.
For the people of El Salvador, the consequences of Bitcoin adoption were far more serious. At the conference, we connected with two exiled Salvadorans in Miami: Mario Gomez and Carmen Valeria Escobar. Mario, thirty-six, was a critic of Bukele’s Bitcoin policy. He had been arrested on September 1, 2021, just days before the Bitcoin law was to take effect. While driving his mother to work, he came upon a police barricade that seemed to have been set up just for him. The police confirmed his identity and hauled him down to a local station, where they separated him from his mother and placed him in an interrogation room. When he asked why he was being detained, Mario was told it involved an investigation into financial fraud. He never saw any documentation that this was in fact the case and he was never charged with any crime. Nonetheless, the police took his phones and tried to take his laptop from his mother, who was waiting outside the station. Thankfully, Carmen, a young reporter and friend of Mario’s who had been alerted to his arrest, interceded and prevented the police from confiscating it. Mario was eventually released, but a question remained: Why had he been arrested in the first place?
The day before, while watching a government presentation about the new Chivo Wallet system, Mario noticed something odd. There was a QR code on one of the slides in the deck, and when you scanned it, it took you to an address that had previously been used to scam people. In 2020, approximately 130 high-profile Twitter accounts had been compromised and used to promote a Bitcoin scam. The scammers only managed to make off with $121,000, but the case had briefly attracted global attention. To Mario, this was alarming. The government was using a scam wallet address in the promotional materials for the new Bitcoin monetary system they had developed in secrecy and were about to deploy. Maybe it was the work of a technical novice who googled “crypto wallet QR code” and used the first result that came up, or perhaps it was some scam by a contractor. Either way, it was a disaster, and Mario alerted his fellow Salvadorans via Twitter to the ridiculousness of the situation. The next day Mario was arrested.
Mario knew his stuff. A longtime technologist working on civic-minded projects, he had done stints with organizations like the United Nations World Food Programme. For him, the rush to implement the Bitcoin as legal tender wasn’t an indication of a groundbreaking, innovative government policy, but rather smelled of old-fashioned corruption. While it was unclear exactly what Bukele and his cronies were up to, both Mario and Carmen speculated that it could be a way to facilitate money laundering associated with the drug trade while enriching a close circle of insiders. (Large amounts of South American cocaine flow north through El Salvador.)
Even if none of that were true, for Mario, Bitcoin was bad tech and bad economics. I asked him what he thought of Bitcoin advocates using El Salvador’s adoption as an example of progress: “You cannot separate the people from the technology. What you are doing is…enabling a government to shut down anyone they don’t like.”
Mario was never charged with any crime, but he still feared for his safety. On the day the Bitcoin law went into effect, September 7, 2021, he fled the country, escaping first over land and then by plane to the United States, where he is now seeking asylum. He had to leave his sister, his mother, and his entire extended family behind. He told his sister that she should be prepared not to see him for a long time.
He said all this with a sense of civic principle, with grace under severe mental pressure, and with a remarkable amount of good humor. Mario had a joyful, almost childlike, high-pitched laugh. He was hard not to admire and harder not to like. On the conference floor we had watched as Salvadoran Bitcoin enthusiasts walked up to him and asked, with defiance, Why are you here? Some of the approaches were more than a bit threatening. He took it all in stride, sometimes engaging his antagonists in long, stem-winding conversations, punctuated by bursts of chest-shaking laughter. This, I thought, was the truth about Bitcoin and El Salvador: It had made Mario, a dignified, ethically engaged person worried about his people, into the world’s first Bitcoin refugee.
Carmen was soon to follow. Her journalism had already angered the establishment enough that her mother was fired from a government job. She had recently secured a position with a foreign news agency, which potentially offered some protection, and began spending time in Mexico City. It might be past time to move permanently. The week we were together in Miami, one of Carmen’s friends became the subject of a local social media campaign that tarred him as the brother of a gang member—a quick path to arrest under Bukele’s militarized crackdown. Except Carmen’s friend didn’t have a brother. The truth didn’t matter. The risk was too great. While we stood outside the press room in which Bitcoin moguls extolled El Salvador’s burgeoning economic utopia, Carmen’s friend called to tell her he was leaving for Mexico.
Bitcoin hadn’t set Mario and Carmen free, and I doubted, no matter the surrounding conditions, that it could liberate any of the rest of us. Still, as much as I trusted their stories—and as much as I had been moved by their pathos in the face of all the profoundly stupid Bitcoin hucksterism surrounding us in Miami—I had to see it for myself.
It was time to go to El Salvador.
From the book Easy Money: Cryptocurrency, Casino Capitalism, and the Golden Age of Fraud by Ben McKenzie with Jacob Silverman published by Abrams Press, Available July 18. Text copyright © 2023 Benjamin Schenkkan