Tales from the Crypto | Part II: How Bitcoin became legal tender in El Salvador

One year ago, El Salvador made Bitcoin legal tender — the first nation in the world to do so. But how did Bitcoin make its way into this Latin American country? It all started in the coastal town of El Zonte, which earned the nickname “Bitcoin Beach” after being flushed with the cryptocurrency thanks to a mysterious donor.

In the second part of our mini-series, Tales from the Crypto, we take a deep dive into the key players (and controversies) of El Salvador’s wild Bitcoin journey. We also hear from a Salvadoran economist who is a critic of the government’s handling of Bitcoin, especially in the midst of cryptocurrency’s crash in recent months.

Show notes

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Full Transcript:

This content was originally created for audio. The transcript has been edited from our original script for clarity. Heads up that some elements (i.e. music, sound effects, tone) are harder to translate to text. 

(Rooster calls.)

Megan Cattel: Ooh, I hear a rooster.

Ismael: What?

Megan: A rooster!

Ben Brock Johnson: Hey, Amory.

Amory Sivertson: Hi, Ben.

Ben: Who did we just hear? Apart from the roosters.

Amory: That’s one of our Endless Thread producers, Megan Cattel.

Ben: Who is not a rooster?

Amory: Nope.

Ben: Nope.

Amory: No. Unless…

Ben: Megan, are you a rooster?

Megan: No! But I did get some solid rooster sounds thanks to a video tour I recently took of this little town in El Salvador called El Zonte. My tour guide was this 19-year-old guy named Ismael. He’s tall, lanky, has fluffy brown hair and braces, which makes him seem younger than he is. He showed me around via a video call and he was very patient with our language barrier around roosters.

Ismael: What’s that?

Megan: (Yells.) The cock-a-doodle-doo!

Ismael: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Here, there are a lot of them. (Laughs.)

Megan: (Laughs.)

Ismael: This is something common right here. Yes.

Megan: Ismael is a sophomore in college and lives at home with his sister, two brothers, and his parents. When he goes outside to get a better Wi-Fi connection, his laptop camera shows palm trees clustered around the yard and corrugated metal roofing on top of his house. The blue sky and palm trees really makes it look like the scenery looks like one of those tropical island default screensavers for computers.

Amory: It looks pretty dreamy.

Ben: Yeah, like Hawaii or something. It is apparent why this town attracts surfers from around the world. It is beautiful.

Megan: As a resident of Queens, New York, it made me jealous.

Ben: (Laughs.)

Megan: But Ismael himself wasn’t there for the scenery. He’s always dreamed of becoming a pro surfer and a surf instructor.

Ben: So, just get good at surfing right? That’s all you have to do?

Megan: Well, not exactly. Ismael says that in order to make his surf dreams a reality, he really needs some level of formal education. So he’s been trying to juggle three things. Surfing, taking classes, and taking on a part time job to pay the bills and help his family out financially. One issue? Making that job part-time.

Ismael: It’s not possible because people who give you a job, they want you to work all day.

Megan: But then he found something. A job that was part time and would let him stay in El Zonte. Ismael talked with a youth group leader at a nonprofit called Hope House.

Hope House organizes surf camps and beach cleanups, programs to keep young people from getting involved with gangs. A staff member suggested to Ismael…

Ismael: You can come and join us and you can work.

Ben: This sounds like the perfect set up. Go to school. Work for Hope House in his down time. What did he do?

Ismael: Clean the river, or go to the beach, clean the beach.

Megan: Ismael got paid in US Dollars at the end of each workday. But then in 2019, something changed. Hope House’s leader told Ismael and other employees about a change in their compensation.

Ismael: He said we are going to pay you in Bitcoin.

Megan: A paycheck in Bitcoin.

Over the next few months, Ismael’s hometown would transform. Shopkeepers and locals would be encouraged to adopt Bitcoin by local community leaders. El Zonte turned into Bitcoin Beach.

[News audio:

VICE: For the last 18 months or so, the tiny surf town of El Zonte has been running an experiment with Bitcoin.

BBC: Down on the south coast…

Read More: Tales from the Crypto | Part II: How Bitcoin became legal tender in El Salvador

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