The instability of the Argentine banking system (and the expense of dealing with it) has led a growing number of citizens to embark on a bold experiment using Bitcoin to sidestep institutions, a gambit which would probably not be attempted with the same zest in countries with relative financial stability. But if the service proves to be a large-scale success in Argentina, will it influence practices in nations heretofore resistant to cryptocurrency? And will a massive failure doom the decentralized system?
In a New York Times Magazine article adapted from Nathaniel Popper’s forthcoming Digital Gold: Bitcoin and the Inside Story of the Misfits and Millionaires Trying to Reinvent Money, the author writes of this new dynamic in the South American republic, which is enabled by itinerant digital money-changers like Dante Castiglione. An excerpt:
That afternoon, a plump 48-year-old musician was one of several customers to drop by the rented room. A German customer had paid the musician in Bitcoin for some freelance compositions, and the musician needed to turn them into dollars. Castiglione joked about the corruption of Argentine politics as he peeled off five $100 bills, which he was trading for a little more than 1.5 Bitcoins, and gave them to his client. The musician did not hand over anything in return; before showing up, he had transferred the Bitcoins — in essence, digital tokens that exist only as entries in a digital ledger — from his Bitcoin address to Castiglione’s. Had the German client instead sent euros to a bank in Argentina, the musician would have been required to fill out a form to receive payment and, as a result of the country’s currency controls, sacrificed roughly 30 percent of his earnings to change his euros into pesos. Bitcoin makes it easier to move money the other way too. The day before, the owner of a small manufacturing company bought $20,000 worth of Bitcoin from Castiglione in order to get his money to the United States, where he needed to pay a vendor, a transaction far easier and less expensive than moving funds through Argentine banks.
The last client to visit the office that Friday was Alberto Vega, a stout 37-year-old in a neatly cut suit who heads the Argentine offices of the American Bitcoin company BitPay, whose technology enables merchants to accept Bitcoin payments. Like other BitPay employees — there is a staff of six in Buenos Aires — Vega receives his entire salary in Bitcoin and lives outside the traditional financial system. He orders what he can from websites that accept Bitcoin and goes to Castiglione when he needs cash. On this occasion, he needed 10,000 pesos to pay a roofer who was working on his house.
Commerce of this sort has proved useful enough to Argentines that Castiglione has made a living buying and selling Bitcoin for the last year and a half. “We are trying to give a service,” he said.
That mundane service — harnessing Bitcoin’s workaday utility — is what so excites some investors and entrepreneurs about Argentina. Banks everywhere hold money and move it around; they help make it possible for money to function as both a store of value and a medium of exchange. But thanks in large part to their country’s history of financial instability, a small yet growing number of Argentines are now using Bitcoin instead to fill those roles. They keep the currency in their Bitcoin “wallets,” digital accounts they access with a password, and use its network when they need to send or spend money, because even with Castiglione or one of his competitors serving as middlemen between the traditional economy and the Bitcoin marketplace, Bitcoin can be cheaper and more convenient than Argentina’s financial establishment. In effect, Argentines are conducting an ambitious experiment, one that threatens ultimately to spread to the United States and disrupt some of the most basic services its banks have to offer.•