Crypto Under Corona: From Venezuela to Liberland
For nearly two years I traveled around the world and wrote about the subcultures of blockchain – from Bali to Budapest, from Serbia to Switzerland. I planned to continue the journey. I imagined I’d be traveling to far-flung places this summer, reporting on global blockchain projects for CoinDesk.
Then came COVID-19. Since the word “travel” is now a glum anachronism – maybe our grandkids will be able to experience this thing they call “travel” – like everyone else I’m holed up in an apartment, staring at screens. But I was curious. How is the global crypto community, or at least the community that I know, handling the pandemic? How has the coronavirus impacted their daily lives, their projects, their outlook on blockchain? So I checked in with a few of my old crypto friends to get a bit of a pulse.
Of course, this is not meant to be an exhaustive, scientific survey of global themes – (good luck with that) – but it does give a window into some voices that are rarely heard, and a glimpse of everyday life from the wider blockchain world. A few themes emerge. The biggest: In many ways blockchain projects are faring better during CV19, and are more optimistic, than the non-blockchain world. Many people in the space are simply wired for this kind of thing. “Crypto has a bunch of semi-Asperger-ey people,” said one blockchain entrepreneur. “They’re loving this. They’re loving the excuse to not leave the house.”
Or to be more charitable, the blockchain space is a mix of idealists, dreamers, builders, risk takers and many who were already expecting the collapse of civilization. Blockchain has already survived scare after scare, crash after crash. So who’s afraid of a global pandemic?
When I first met Barnabás Debreczeni at a Hungarian blockchain conference in the summer of 2018, he told me that his journey to crypto began with zombies. When he and his buddies prepared for a “zombie invasion” – he uses the word zombie, jokingly, as shorthand for any kind of apocalyptic event – they realized that if civilization broke down, they would need some kind of peer-to-peer form of currency, and that led them to bitcoin.
Now, Debreczeni seems prophetic: The zombies have arrived in the form of COVID-19. Debreczeni is tall, trim, wears long hair in a ponytail, and runs a Bitcoin exchange and ATM company called Mr. Coin. In our Zoom call, he tells me he closely followed the virus as early as January, and in February he stockpiled food, sanitizer, gas and a generator. “I got myself a katana,” he says with a smile, “So I can fight inside the building.” In February, people said he was crazy. In March, they begged him for sugar and flour.
At the Budapest blockchain conference, many in the space told me their interest was driven, in part, by concerns over Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s anti-democratic regime. “Crypto gives power to the people,” one Hungarian blockchain entrepreneur told me then. “Orbán said that he wants to lead Hungary towards an illiberal democracy. That includes non-transparent management of funds, or funds that are not being used properly. Bitcoin has the potential to bring some transparency to this.”
COVID-19 seems to have heightened those concerns, as Orbán has leveraged the emergency to assume quasi-dictator power. “There’s no Parliament, no voting, it’s the rule of the dictator,” says Debreczeni. As for the day-to-day impact? Happily, it’s less dystopian sci-fi than you might imagine. Debreczeni explains that the Hungarian army and police are “on the streets, but they’re friendly,” and you can still go to the grocery store and still walk your dog. They even find some humor in the lockdown. Debreczeni’s crypto buddies were amused by an official video from Orbán’s dictator government, which attempted to show that they’re in control. “It looks like a scene from a shitty action movie,” says Debreczeni. (He’s not wrong. The video is only 54 seconds and worth a click.)
The blockchain community in Hungary takes the lockdown seriously, explains Debreczeni, and still conducts their meet-ups over Zoom, with drinks, at what they call the Zoom Pub. In fact he’s running late for a Zoom Pub right now – it’s 6 p.m. Budapest time – and he’s happily drinking a Hungarian “cherry beer” that was brewed in a wine casket.
The pandemic’s impact on the business? The lockdown has forced Mr. Coin’s bitcoin ATMs out of commission, but that drop has been more than offset, says Debreczeni, by an uptick from people buying crypto on the online exchange. He was surprised by a new pattern in the buying and selling. Typically when the price of bitcoin plunges, he sees institutional investors swoop in to BTFD. But soon after the price drop on March 12, (when bitcoin fell to $3,867), he saw an influx from mom and pop investors. “That’s never happened before,” says Debreczeni. His theory: They’re buying cryptocurrencies less as a speculative asset and more for its utility. “Now we’re back to the original value proposition of bitcoin,” reasons Debreczeni. “Of free and fair and transparency, decentralized form of money, that people can accumulate to hedge against political and economic risk.”
Debreczeni acknowledges these are just anecdotal observations from what he has seen in Budapest, but suspects people are now turning to crypto in their time of need. “As the days and weeks pass, we will get into a more serious economic downturn, with probable bank closures, capital controls, and withdrawal limits on ATMs. So they try to run out ahead and cash out into crypto,” he says. “They can store it for free, transfer it for free and have full control over it.”
Maybe they can even use it to stop the zombies.
You might remember Jeremy Gardner as the face of the “crypto castle,” infamously profiled by The New York Times in January 2018, at the frothy peak of bitcoin price speculation, in a piece called “Everyone is Getting Hilariously Rich and You’re Not.” Last year I caught up with Gardner, a co-founder of prediction market Augur – and aspiring crypto reality TV star – when he launched a second crypto castle in Miami. So how is this one-time poster boy of Cryptomania handling the pandemic?
The short version: He’s winning and the rest of us are losing.
“If I’m going to have to social-distance, I sure as [hell] don’t want to do this in the house for the next two months,” Gardner tells me over the phone from somewhere in the desert.
Gardner rented an RV and is driving across the country on an extended, leisurely, socially distanced tour. Along with his friend, a fashion model (of course), Gardner has romped through empty sand dunes, state and national parks, and deserted landmarks like the Alamo. “We’ve been going to all the world’s largest things,” he says. The world’s largest petrified tree, the world’s largest pecan, the world’s largest rocking chair, the world’s largest cowboy boots.
Like most entrepreneurs I spoke with, Gardner is even more bullish on blockchain during the pandemic. “Honestly, it’s never been more relevant in the wake of COVID-19,” he says from his RV, now parked on the side of the road. “Blockchain never shuts down.” He elaborates that it “cuts out the middleman,” such as the banking systems and governments.
As more and more systems teeter on the brink of collapse, this logic goes, blockchain will emerge as a sturdier alternative. “There are so many central points of failure in so many businesses,” says Gardner. “This industry is going to come out stronger than it was before coronavirus.”
Unlike Liberland’s President Jedlicka (below), Gardner doesn’t see any tension between libertarianism and quasi-forced social distancing. “The most important piece of libertarianism is respecting others’ autonomy,” he says. “The most anti-libertarian thing you can do is to potentially violate someone else’s health. You have to respect people’s right to life.”
Soon Gardner will reach LA where, in addition to running a blockchain venture capital fund (Ausum Ventures, which is now backing a coronavirus prediction market), he’s soon launching a men’s skin care brand – presumably not on the blockchain. This trip is a chance to clear his head, recharge, reboot.
His takeaway from this sojourn through the American heartland? Appreciate the quiet and stillness of life. “Even if you’re in a big city, you can actually find moments of silence,” he says. “If we can somehow move back to more of that slower, quieter mode of existence, humanity would be so much better off.”
It started here early. On March 7, in the city of Valencia, which is about a two-hour drive from Caracas, Ernesto Contreras went to a pizza joint for dinner and beers with his friends. At 10 p.m. the police showed up and immediately the restaurant closed its doors to new customers. This was the last time Contreras went out to dinner – the Venezuelan government shut the country down.
“The government was very swift,” says Contreras, who heads a team at DASH that promotes the merchant adoption of cryptocurrency. “Venezuelans understand that the country has infrastructure problems, and they immediately quarantined the country.” He explains that almost everything was shut down right away, that you are required to wear masks before entering a supermarket and that the lockdown is “friendly, but enforced.”
There are two Venezuelas, explains Contreras: the world of those who are better off, and then the world of those living in the slums. In the first world, as he sees it, “The really rich people are staying at their big houses and having a barbecue.” They’re doing just fine. They’re social distancing like champs. Contreras says that in the second world, the slums, many don’t have the luxury of social distancing as they continue to work in crowded street markets – but even they are wearing masks. “People are begging in the streets, looking for food in the garbage but, strangely enough, they’re wearing masks to cover themselves,” he says.
Much has changed since I spoke with Contreras in 2018. “Venezuela changes very rapidly,” he says. “When you come back to Venezuela after a year, you will see a totally different country than the one you saw last time.” In 2018 and 2019, the country faced hyper-inflation to the tune of 1 million percent per year. The price of milk would double or triple every week. This is why the DASH team made an aggressive play for local merchant adoption (it says it eventually signed 800 merchants), as here cryptocurrencies could truly matter. In Venezuela, crypto wasn’t just a principled statement against centralized banking. In Venezuela, crypto wasn’t just a novelty or an experiment. Cryptocurrencies were a way – sometimes the only way – for an ordinary person to buy bread. (I covered it here.)
The situation has somewhat improved. The Venezuelan government now permits U.S. dollars and they’re widely accepted. “Yet, payment is still difficult,” says Contreras. Physical notes of cash are scarce. Bolivars are still nearly worthless. Contrerars explains the largest bolivar note is 50,000, and last week (as of April 24), one soft drink could cost 140,000. “Imagine if you needed three $100 bills to pay for one drink?” Even if you can pay for a lunch with a $20 U.S. bill, often the merchant won’t have change, so you’re forced to round up or buy things you don’t really want.
Then there’s the lack of online infrastructure. Think about how so many U.S. citizens, especially in larger cities, handle the day-to-day inconveniences of COVID-19: They order things on Amazon, they order dinner from Uber Eats.
There’s no Amazon in Venezuela. There’s no Uber Eats in Venezuela. So Contrerars says cryptocurrency is helping to fill the gap, as local businesses are using WhatsApp to organize local deliveries. “You talk to the supermarket by WhatsApp, and they’ll figure out what you want and then deliver it,” he says, explaining that his DASH team is working on helping local businesses use crypto to facilitate those transactions. There are 60,000 active DASH wallets in Venezuela, according to Contrerars, and the company has partnerships with Burger King and Church’s Chicken. Cryptocurrency can now be used to buy medicine and then have it delivered to you during quarantine.
“The solution is there,” says Contrerars. “The technology is there. And people are starting to use it.”
Contrerars, like nearly everyone I spoke with, is a refreshing reminder of the wider world, of the opportunities, of the hopes and the guts and the weirdness. I miss it. I don’t know when I’ll next be able to hop on a flight and explore another corner of the blockchain space, but I know it’ll be there waiting.
Last year I traveled to Crypto Valley in Zug, Switzerland, in something of a homage to the land that birthed Ethereum. Over dinner and far too many bottles of wine, the co-founder of CV Labs, Ralf Glabischnig, described how blockchain is especially well-suited to the Swiss, as their government operates as a kind of decentralized consensus. There are two words in Swiss German, Auslegeordnung and Vernehmlassung, that do not even exist in German or any other language. “Auslegeordnung means that you put all the facts on the table, and you discuss them with all of the players on the network,” Glabischnig told me then. “Vernehmlassung means you ask them if they’re fine with it.”
So how is Glabischnig and the Swiss blockchain community holding up now? “On a panic level from 0 to 10, where 10 is the highest, at the beginning we were probably at 5, and now we’re down to 1,” says Glabischnig in his gentle, soothing voice. “It’s quite relaxed in Switzerland, and the numbers are massively down. We’re past the curve.”
Glabischnig guesses 95 percent of the Swiss population is working from home but he’s part of the 5 percent still going into the office – in his case the nearly empty CV Labs, a five-story blockchain office and coworking space that has meeting rooms labeled “Moon” and “Whale,” a life-sized statue of a unicorn because obviously and a whiteboard that invites crypto-folk to scribble their #MyWishFortheFuture. (On the board: “1 million dogecoin!” “#WhenImpact?” “When Lambo!” “AI meets blockchain & take the world.” and “ETC 4 EVA.”)
Back then the meet-up scene was booming, as CV Labs hosted weekly “Wine and Vision” events. And now? “Zero now, absolutely zero,” says Glabischnig. Many tenants of the CV Labs have canceled their contracts. Gatherings of more than five people are forbidden in Zug and Zurich, although in what might be a low-key bit of rebellion, Glabischnig and his blockchain friends still gather for the occasional drink at the House of Wine, where he insists “we try to keep the social distancing.” His team had planned to open up a branch of the CV Labs in Dubai in July, but that idea is scotched. He’s still hoping for a September launch.
To get a sense of how Covid19 is impacting the industry, CV Labs took a survey of 50 management leaders from Switzerland, which Glabischnig says “represents more than $20 billion in the blockchain space.” Some takeaways: 73 percent said their business was impacted by COVID-19, 63 percent said it caused a loss of business opportunities and 72 percent said it caused an adjustment to their budgets. Also, 42 percent applied for a federal loan, 58 percent did not. In what you can frame as either glass half empty or half full, nearly half (45 percent) said they had enough runway for more than a year. Only 8 percent planned a reduction in their staff. The survey respondents noted some positive impacts of the pandemic: more efficient one-on-one meetings, a trimming of excess costs and a chance to revise projects and priorities.
Echoing what I’ve heard from many others, Glabischnig thinks most blockchain projects, in general, are faring better during COVID-19 than the rest of the world. He ticks off three reasons: 1) “Blockchain is a digital business, and the companies that are not digital have the biggest issue.”
2) Decentralized organizations, almost by definition, tend to have teams that are geographically decentralized. Remote work is practically a first principle and, of course, they speak via Telegram and video chats.
3) Perhaps most importantly: “Most of the blockchain companies, at the moment, make no revenue,” Glabischnig says with a chuckle. “So they’re not losing any revenue.” Restaurants need to sell food. Newspapers need to sell ads. Many blockchain companies simply need to…well, to nurse their ICO-backed coffers. You can’t lose what you don’t have.
This was supposed to be a big day for the nation of Liberland, that blockchain-powered utopia of libertarianism. March 31 marked the fifth anniversary of the nation’s founding, and Liberland’s President, Vit Jedlicka, had planned a two-day celebration. For the uninitiated: Five years ago, Jedlicka (who is based in the Czech Republic) found a tiny island – about the size of New York’s Harlem neighborhood – that sits on the disputed borders of Croatia and Serbia, and claimed this as a sovereign nation that would be run according to the principles of libertarianism.
The nation has a written constitution and 610,000 residents, or e-residents. (I wrote about it here.) It’s still impossible for most to settle on the island itself, but for the anniversary Liberlanders had planned to celebrate on the waters that border the island, partying on large boats. Instead, they held a virtual conference in their “virtual embassy,” headlined by a speech from Liberland-enthusiast Ron Paul.
Other than COVID-19 scrapping the live party, it seems they haven’t missed a beat. “We’re already decentralized,” says President Jedlicka, almost cheerfully. “Coronavirus only adds to our efficiency.” Jedlicka has a short-cropped beard and red T-shirt and he smiles through the private video-conferencing app (Liberland doesn’t use Zoom for privacy concerns).
An example of this newfound efficiency: Normally he would fly from Prague to London to meet with the “Ghostbusters” blockchain team. But once they had to scrap the trip, they realized it wasn’t necessary in the first place. “Now I do the similar amount of work in two or three hours online,” says Jedlicka.
I was curious – even fascinated – by how Liberland would respond to a crisis like COVID-19. Their core principle is that the government should do as little as possible, and potentially not even exist. Most people across the political spectrum, however, agree that crises are precisely the times when governments are needed the most. Governments have the power (in theory) to prevent foreclosures, to backstop loans, to send people emergency checks. Governments can enforce social distancing. Flatten the curve. Save lives. Yet, government intrusion is anathema to libertarians, so how does Jedlicka square this? Is forced social distancing ethical? Right or wrong?
I ask him this question.
There’s a long pause.
“Let me just answer from a completely different angle,” says the President. He then describes, instead, a hypothetical world where we had “much more freedom for the past 20 years,” or what he calls an “anarcho-capitalist society.” In this world, says Jedlicka, everyone would be driving their Teslas, “which would be completely filtered and ventilated,” everyone would have modern respirators they could use for jogging and the community would be “super-fast to respond” to the crisis. “In the system that we have right now,” Jedlicka argues, “we’re fighting over the supplies from China.”
“What kind of help does the government provide to people? Zero,” says Jedlicka, with a touch of scorn. “It just gives them a hard time, gives them bureaucracy and makes the people poorer.” He cites the failure of many governments to provide adequate amounts of respirators.
This does not mean Liberland is putting its collective head in the sand, embracing an attitude of Let people fend for themselves. It has done the opposite. Jedlicka says that unlike the clunky governments, a Liberlander (through the Czech company Corovent) managed to quickly send 600 protective shields to Croatian civil protection, as well as deliver N95 respirators to hospitals in the United States, and are working to get medical aid to Serbia and Haiti. “And not these toy-like ventilators, but actual professional ventilators that can actually be used in the hospitals.”
Jedlicka, like many in the U.S., is frustrated with what he sees as overreaching government action that chokes the economy. “My assumption is that you will see much more death caused by the government, rather by a virus, which is crazy,” says Jedlicka. “I believe this is actually a great example that even in the places where people are strong believers in the necessity of government intrusion, this particular event proves them wrong.”
My first plunge into the crypto community came in Bali, which, back in January 2018, had a frisky blockchain ecosystem. In Ubud, which is the spiritual (and tourist) center of Bali, you could stumble into crypto traders, crypto start-ups and crypto meet-ups galore. It seemed that crypto was everywhere. Just before it opened for business I visited the snazzy “Blockchain Zoo,” a high-end consultancy and coworking space, meeting with owner Roberto Capodieci.
The Blockchain Zoo still exists, but Capodieci tells me that the meet-up scene has all but vanished, and that happened long before COVID-19. The Indonesian government, enforcing a law meant to protect the local rupiah, cracked down on businesses that accepted cryptocurrencies. “Two years ago I could pay for breakfast with bitcoin,” says Capodieci. “Now you can only use rupiah. That killed a lot of initiatives,” (The price of bitcoin slumping to $3K in 2019, of course, also killed a lot of initiatives.)
Capodieci, who has OG crypto cred – he says he received a test copy of the original bitcoin node software program – and who taught crypto courses at the University of Singapore, is a large man who wears a light beard and a Donkey Kong T-shirt. In the Zoom video he suddenly blanches, then swats his hand at something. “A mosquito just decided to die in my mouth!” He says, laughing. “And I’m not even riding a motorcycle.” (Everyone drives a moped or motorcycle in Bali, even wimps like me.)
There are now fewer mopeds in Ubud. The roads are mostly empty. The borders are closed. The tourists are gone. The few people on the streets do wear masks, says Capodieci, “And the police will stop you if you don’t have one, and give you a mask.”
Meanwhile the Blockchain Zoo has pivoted to launching their own platform, ZooBC, which uses a Proof of Stake protocol. Capodieci says his team of 25 developers can easily work remotely, and they’re working on a beta version of ZooBC (the alpha launched in November).
COVID-19’s impact on their efforts? The way Capodieci sees things, the pandemic is almost a positive. The downside is he had hoped to be in Dubai and Singapore to meet with potential clients and investors. However, the upside, he says, is everyone seems extra-focused from home. And they’re using the time to add more functionality into beta, which is one of the benefits cited by that survey from Switzerland’s CV Labs.
Capodieci’s tone is almost chipper. “This thing is going to change the way people work. I love it,” he says. “The longer it lasts, the better it is.” He quickly clarifies he has sympathy for the local businesses, like hotels and restaurants, that are suffering. But he can compartmentalize. Focus on the silver lining. If COVID-19 has nudged companies to give workers a choice between at-home or in-office, he sees that as a win. “You should be working at a place you love to go to,” he says, “because that’s where you’re spending most of your life.”
Gardner’s not the only one who views CV19 as an acceptable time – maybe the perfect time – to unleash the potential of blockchain. Take Daniel Dabek, who happens to be Liberland’s ambassador to Serbia. Dabek describes his Serbia-based blockchain project, SafeX, as a kind of “Amazon on the blockchain.” I visited SafeX headquarters in Belgrade in 2018 and I wasn’t even sure if SafeX still existed.
Dabek assures me it still does, and it plans to publicly launch an early version of its decentralized marketplace this summer, COVID-19 or no. In a now-familiar refrain, Dabek says the blockchain space is well equipped for this kind of remote work. “We’re already used to this recluse-kind of paradigm,” he says, laughing a bit. “In all sincerity, we’ve had very little or no interruption to the software development side of things.”
In a way he’s happy about the timing. Dabek argues that a frictionless, person-to-person marketplace is just what we need. “It’s not illegal to sell an N95 mask, but Amazon snapped their fingers and you can’t do it anymore,” says Dabek. “That means normal people can’t get those things.” With a decentralized and blockchain-powered marketplace, he says, the average person is better off. (Note: We spoke on April 13, soon after Amazon blocked the sale of N95 masks to the consumers because it prioritized these scarce goods for hospitals. Is this sensible regulation to protect health care workers, or a slap in the face to the free market? Yet, another fascinating question from the blockchain space.)
Dabek tries to keep a longer-lens perspective. “If you look at the cryptocurrency ecosystem, we’re in a perpetual recession every two years,” he reasons. “You’re going against the tide every day or night.” So the quarantine is no different. “Crypto will rise above all of this over the next 18 months or two years.”