New crypto-colonialists claim to have found freedom in El Salvador

The year 2023 saw increasing arrivals in El Salvador of persons declaring they had arrived in a promised land of freedom.  They are persons from English-speaking countries arriving in El Salvador to escape.  Whether you call them “influencers” or “youtubers” or Bitcoiners”, they go on social media to announce that they have left countries where they felt oppressed by their governments, and only by escaping to El Salvador did they find freedom.  It's a freedom of the rich colonialist, not a freedom guaranteed by the government of El Salvador to all its citizens.    

Typical of these exaggerated proclamations that El Salvador is a beacon of freedom is this article in Bitcoin Magazine by William Stebbins, a retired US military officer who declares that El Salvador has transformed itself under Bukele "from impoverished vassal to budding sanctuary of freedom."  Stebbins proclaims "Bitcoin’s freedom technology has offered Salvadoreños an opportunity to break the cycle of traitorous leadership, institutionalized corruption, generational poverty, endemic violence, and western fiat vassalship."  This revamping of the country is all due to Bitcoin according to the arriving enthusiasts, even though the Salvadoran public has roundly rejected Bukele's initiative with the crypto-currency.

On social media, a group of these new arrivals produce videos where they enthuse over beaches, pupusas and the freedom they have found in El Salvador thanks to Bitcoin and Bukele.  An example of these new residents of El Salvador is this couple from Britain, Hannah and David:

 “They’ve come here for a bit of freedom, you know, a little bit of life…to speak to people openly and freely about the events going on over the past couple of years." 
“I just see the UK becoming more and more authoritarian…2020 showed that the UK [is not a free country]”

The couple complains about pandemic restrictions in the UK, asserts they lacked control over their own money, and warns about the threat of central bankers.

Or take this recent post on X by another Bitcoiner infatuated with El Salvador and reposted by Nayib Bukele:

This is the land of mana, of freedom, everything in freedom is here. Freedom in money, freedom in medicine, freedom in the internet...

Healthcare and freedom was also a theme echoed by this YouTuber from France, expressing his view that because El Salvador had a "voluntary" approach to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, it was one of his reasons for coming to the country.  

Nicki and James, a Youtuber couple who moved to El Salvador from New Zealand, say they felt oppressed in their home country, and hopeful for the lack of government mandates in El Salvador.  

Another person professing the freedom narrative is Jeremy, the founder of Escape to El Salvador.  His company now helps persons outside of El Salvador seeking this free and easy lifestyle to apply for residency, or start up a business, or navigate moving to El Salvador.  

You can find many more interviews of people like these on the YouTube channel Live from Bitcoin Beach, hosted by Mike Peterson, the original founder of the Bitcoin project at El Zonte.

And for those who want a faster track to Salvadoran citizenship than you would get from Escape to El Salvador, the government of El Salvador has now launched a "Freedom Passport."   Under this new fast-track citizenship program, 1000 wealthy individuals per year can obtain Salvadoran citizenship for themselves and their family with a payment of $1 million to the Salvadoran government. The website offering the Freedom Passport (which only appears in English) declares El Salvador to be the "Ark of Freedom in Central America."     

Yet all of these social media influencers are either willfully ignorant or simply deceitful.  They claim that a prime example of the tyranny of the US and European countries are COVID-19 policies such as vaccine mandates or masking requirements. Thank goodness they are free of those in El Salvador!  Yet their comments show a complete lack of knowledge of how the Bukele government acted to impose public health controls during the pandemic.  Perhaps they did not know, or do not want to know, that Nayib Bukele claimed for himself the ability to issue orders confining all but a designated household member to homes, to impose a military siege around a town when he thought too many citizens were disobeying those lockdown rules, and to prohibit in-person classes in schools throughout 2020 and 2021.  For months, Bukele banned citizens of El Salvador caught abroad at the start of the pandemic from returning home.  And Salvadorans who did not follow the rules could be locked up in "contention centers" for a minimum of 30 days without any trial or process.

Bukele, who once labelled himself on Twitter "the coolest dictator in the world," has not renounced any of those powers he used in 2020 and beyond.

In their love of Bitcoin, the new arrivals proclaim that a Bitcoin economy provides freedom from central government invasion of their privacy and ability to control own destiny.   What better place to find that freedom than in El Salvador where Bitcoin has been made legal tender?  But they seem to ignore that the Salvadoran government's version of a Bitcoin wallet, the Chivo wallet, was everything they claim to abhor. A Salvadoran citizen's Bitcoin holdings would be held by the government in this custodial wallet, every transaction through the wallet would be visible to the government, and the government held the identity of every holder of a Chivo wallet.  

Their declarations of liberty show their disregard for the past 21 months under the ongoing State of Exception during which Salvadorans have lived without constitutional protections against arbitrary arrests, against detention without evidence, against arrests based on mere allegations.  The new arrivals claim to simply "feel free" while living in beach communities, at the same time ignoring that this government claims the right to lock anyone up.

A group of Bitcoin industry players with ties to El Salvador have launched what they call the Freedom Manifesto which purports to "manifest their commitment to financial freedom and freedom of speech."  The declaration in El Salvador conveniently ignores the 17 journalists who have had to go into exile from El Salvador during Bukele's regime, the two dozen journalists and human rights advocates who had their phones infected with sophisticated Pegasus spyware, or the more than 400 abuses of journalists by authorities registered by the Salvadoran association of journalists.     

So what is the liberty that these new arrivals are finding in El Salvador?  It is the liberty of the rich.  Their dollars and pounds and euros buy more in El Salvador. Suddenly their incomes from working remotely for global companies, or being an influencer, or living off investments puts them in the very top wealth percentages of the residents of El Salvador.

Ricardo Valencia, who teaches at Cal State Fullerton and is a frequent commentator on events in El Salvador, called the new arrivals crypto-colonialists in a column in El Faro:

The dream of turning El Tunco, Zonte and Conchagua into Surf City, Bitcoin Beach and Bitcoin City, respectively, also requires a strong hand to keep the poor at bay from the new colonizers. The poor – like the snow cone vendor who accepted payment for his product with Bitcoin – continue to be captured during the state of emergency. Crypto-colonialism uses locals as cheap labor, while its elites are immune to police repression. While the crypto elite whispers in the president's ear and has gala dinners with him, the poor use social networks to shout the pain that the state of exception inflicts on them. 

The crypto-colonialists arrive in El Salvador to the open arms of a government which will flatter them for being there. The government says that these arriving foreigners are signs that the Bukele economic miracle must be a reality.  Some will have their pictures taken with the president or have him repost their praise of El Salvador on Twitter. 

These freedom lovers live in enclaves of other expatriates where they need not fear that the police will look at their tattoos and carry them off to the hells of Salvadoran prisons. They come to El Zonte / Bitcoin Beach and proclaim it the vision of the future. Meanwhile they bid up prices of real estate and development projects catering to them dislodge the poor original residents.

At the same time boutique hotels and trendy bars get built in "Bitcoin Beach," the original residents of El Zonte are getting displaced.  They don't have the freedom to stay in the homes they have built up over the years.  Instead, as reported in the environmental news site Mala Yerba, they will be relocated to a new housing settlement away from the beach and across the street from the new sewage treatment plant built to serve the tourist establishments in the area.   They are being forced to move to build a tourist project, "Bitcoin Beach Club de Playa," which will feature beach volleyball, massage salons, a shopping district, and beach access. Residents of El Zonte say their forced relocation contradicts an earlier promise by Bukele that local residents would be included in the improvements to their hometown.

(Ironically, Jeremy of Escape to El Salvador wrote an op ed in Bitcoin Magazine claiming that the problem with real estate prices going up and displacing local residents was caused by too little supply of real estate, and too few people having become Bitcoin adopters).  

Perhaps before these new arrivals declare El Salvador a paragon of freedom and opportunity, they should question why so many persons born in El Salvador still seek to emigrate from the country.  Since October 1, 2018, 367,000 Salvadorans have been detained trying to enter the US across that country's southern border.  Just in 2023 alone, which Nayib Bukele has declared the safest year in Salvadoran history for the safest country in Latin America, an average of 5000 Salvadorans were apprehended each month at the US border.  Perhaps it is because when asked in opinion polls, 61% of Salvadorans say that Bitcoin only benefits a privileged few -- the rich, foreign investors, and business owners.   



Cathy A Howell said…
Tim, Thank you so much for writing this. It is incredibly sad and horrifying that these young people think that El Salvador offers them more "freedom" than their own countries because they have so little understanding of history, of class, and the privilege their skin color and nationalities give them here. To them freedom is not paying taxes, using bitcoin, and using the resources here that Salvadorans pay for with their underpaid work and the taxes they pay on imported goods. And the State of Exception is a terrible on-going violation of human rights - under the new policies people (usually poor young men) can be detained for up to 4 years without even having a hearing. And because habeas corpus no longer exists they have to prove their innocence instead of the government having to charge them with something specific and prove their guilt. The prisons are now El Salvador's version of a gulag.