Future of Money

Migrant families wary as El Salvador becomes first to adopt bitcoin

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Jaime Ramirez, 60-year-old tailor who receives remittances from his daughters living in the U.S., talks with Reuters at his shop in Colon, El Salvador, September 3, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

COLON, El Salvador, Sept 6 (Reuters) - Each month, Salvadoran tailor Julio Ramirez receives a small wire transfer from his two daughters in the United States, who have to pay a few dollars in commission fees for the transaction.

As of this week, El Salvador's government says its historic adoption of bitcoin as legal tender will save Salvadorans living abroad millions of dollars in transfer charges if they instead use the cryptocurrency to send their money home.

Over 2.5 million Salvadorans live abroad - mostly in the United States - and in 2020 they sent back almost $6 billion, equivalent to 23% of the country's gross domestic product.

But Ramirez, who has a small workshop in Colon, a poor municipality 19 kilometers (12 miles) west of the capital, San Salvador, said neither he nor his daughters in California have any intention of using the digital currency. They view it as a liability.

"They say they're not sending it that way because they think they might lose the money; that it won't reach me," the 60-year-old said. "We're not planning to take the risk at any time."

From Tuesday, Sept. 7, El Salvador will become the first country in the world to recognize the cryptocurrency as legal tender. President Nayib Bukele has said any Salvadoran can download the government digital wallet "CHIVO" - a local word meaning "good" - to accept payments in bitcoin or dollars. Having installed the app on their phones, they will be able to withdraw dollars from government-backed cash machines.

Polling suggests that Bukele, 40, is the most popular president in Latin America. But three months after he launched his bitcoin plan, skepticism about it remains widespread, with surveys showing most Salvadorans opposed to its adoption.

Bukele argues the cryptocurrency will make Salvadorans better off and stresses that using it is optional in the impoverished, dollarized Central American country.

"Our people pay $400 million a year in commissions for remittances," the president wrote on Twitter in August. "That saving alone will be a huge benefit for our people (or at least for those who want it)."

But Ramirez said that even if his daughters were charged "maybe $10 to $15 for every $100" sent home, bitcoin's volatility and the lack of information on the currency meant it was not a viable option. The tailor said he receives about $150 a month.

Many Salvadorans polled in a recent Central American University study argue it will only benefit the rich, foreign investors, the government, business people and banks.

Reuters spoke to 10 Salvadorans who send or receive remittances, and only one, Los Angeles-based restaurant manager Salvador Amaya, 51, said he planned to use bitcoin.

"Everything is a risk. If you never take risks, you'll never move forward," he said by telephone. "I trust in our president, and if he's doing it, it's because he knows what he's doing."

VOLATILITY

The other nine did not see things that way.

Saida Rosales, a 27-year-old homemaker who receives money from her mother in the United States every week, says she is afraid of the rapid fluctuations in the value of bitcoin, which can vary by thousands of dollars in a single day.

"I've heard it's like a stock price that goes up and down," she said. "Just imagine, one day my mother makes me a deposit there, and then when she has a look, it's gone down and it'll be worth less than what she sent. I don't think we'll use it."

Most of the money sent back to El Salvador in 2020 was from the United States, followed by Canada, Spain and Italy. Of the total sum, 61.4% came through remittance companies and 37.8% through banking institutions, according to official data.

A 2015 Central Bank study showed that over one-fifth of Salvadoran households rely on remittances to get by, and the government is doubling down on the bitcoin strategy.

Bukele's administration is installing ATMs for the "CHIVO" digital wallet in various consulates in the United States to promote money transfers through the platform, according to a diplomatic official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The foreign ministry did not respond to a request for comment about the plan. A spokesperson for the presidency said the government would provide details in the coming days.

Mario Perez, a 78-year-old street vendor of underwear, said bitcoin's volatility and the prevailing uncertainty over how to use it for transactions were a turn-off.

"I'm not going to use it," he said as he went to collect a dollar wire transfer that his sister sends occasionally from the United States. "Neither for remittances nor for work."

Reporting by Nelson Renteria; Editing by Dave Graham; Editing by Dan Grebler

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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