The Human Cost of Creating Venezuelan Cryptocurrency

The creation of the Petro, under Nicolás Maduro, sparked much controversy.

Eneas De Troya/Creative Commons

What’s your take on cryptocurrency? If you’re an American, particularly one with a connection to the tech world, you’re probably thinking of it as an interesting experiment or something that might become a rival to national currencies. But, as a 2018 article at MarketWatch shows, cryptocurrency’s role in society differs dramatically as you begin to look around the world. Cryptocurrency has taken on a larger role in a number of countries in Africa and South America, for instance.

A 2019 analysis from the cryptocurrency exchange Bybit noted Venezuela in particular as a country where cryptocurrency had gained a foothold. “Bitcoin in particular is increasingly being seen as a worthy investment and a worthy form of currency,” noted the article.

That’s probably what led Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, to announce the development of a Venezuelan cryptocurrency, the Petro, in early 2018. A new article at The New York Times by Nathaniel Popper and Ana Vanessa Herrero explores the development of the Petro — and the conflicts that ensued.

At the center of this conflict was Gabriel Jiménez, who worked on Petro’s design and code. The article notes that while Jiménez was not a supporter of the Maduro government, he did feel that cryptocurrency could spark societal change — which led to his work on the project.

If a national cryptocurrency was done right, Mr. Jiménez believed, he could give the government what it wanted — a way to fight hyperinflation — while also stealthily introducing technology that would give Venezuelans a measure of freedom from a government that dictated every detail of daily life.

What followed was a contentious and controversial series of events, which led to clashes both ideological and pragmatic. Some of Jiménez’s employees didn’t want to work for a regime they disliked, and the idea of cryptocurrency being backed by a government also seemed dissonant to some.

The situation deteriorated further, leading to a place where — as Popper and Herrero phrase it — “Mr. Jiménez found himself feverishly coding all night under armed guard.” Since then, the Petro hasn’t made much of a mark, and Jiménez himself is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. It’s a surreal and painful saga to read about, one in which a host of political and technological conflicts converged at a single point, leaving little unscathed.

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