El Salvador becomes first country to adopt bitcoin as legal tender, price plummets

Over a thousand people marched to protest the new law, according to reports.
Over a thousand people marched to protest the new law, according to reports. Photo credit: Getty Images

El Salvador has become the first country to adopt bitcoin as a legal tender with businesses in the country now obliged to accept payment in the cryptocurrency.

The Central American republic purchased 400 bitcoins earlier this week, valued at US$21 million at the time, with another 150 purchased today.

President Nayib Bukele, who introduced the law, has promised US$30 worth of bitcoin will be preloaded in the Chivo digital wallet being used in the country for everyone who downloads it.

But he tweeted last month that Salvadorians wouldn't have to use if if they didn't want to.

"If someone wants to continue carrying cash, not receive the entry bonus, not win over customers who have bitcoin, not growing your business and paying commission on remittances, you can keep doing it," he wrote, along with a shrugging emoji.

Social media posts from El Salvador have shown how easy it is to pay for purchases with bitcoin with multi-national companies like McDonalds and Starbucks both accepting it.

"Just walked into a McDonald's in San Salvador to see if I could pay for my breakfast with bitcoin, fully expecting to be told no," journalist Aaron van Wirdum tweeted.

"But lo and behold, they printed a ticket with QR that took me to a webpage with Lightning invoice, and now I'm enjoying my desayuno traditional!"

Taxi driver Daniel Hercules has accepted bitcoin for two months ahead of the law change but has seen a low uptick in use.

"I just had someone pay me $40 in bitcoin for a fare to the airport but it's rare. Only around 10 percent of customers prefer to pay with bitcoin," he told the BBC.

Converting bitcoin into US dollars, the local currency, costs 10 percent commission, so Hercules is going to use his bitcoin wallet as a savings account. But he worries about the value of the currency crashing.

"It is one of the things that worries me the most. Losing money from long days of work would not be okay," he said.

And that volatility is already evident.

Earlier this week the cryptocurrency was trading at nearly US$53,000 per coin, but that dropped earlier today as the new law came into effect.

It plummeted over 16 percent in value, to just US$44,427 in a short period of time before rising to over US$46,000.

Reuters reported over 1000 people protested against the new law going into effect, marching to the Supreme Court building, setting off fireworks and burning tyres.

After the move was approved by a supermajority in El Salvador's legislature, ratings agency Moody's downgraded El Salvador's creditworthiness.

The World Bank has also restated that it could not help El Salvador adopt bitcoin as legal tender "given environmental and transparency shortcomings".

A new report from The New York Times said bitcoin's energy usage has increased around ten times in the past five years to approximately 91 terawatt hours (TWh). That's nearly 0.5 percent of all the electricity consumed in the world and more than many countries, it said.

The New Zealand Government announced an inquiry into the nature, impact and risk of cryptocurrencies in July this year.

As well as the environmental impact it will look into how cryptocurrencies are used by criminal organisations to bypass more traditional monetary systems - one of the reasons China has cracked down on both mining and the use of cryptocurrencies.

Chinese authorities say cryptocurrencies "disrupt economic order, and facilitate illegal asset transfers and money laundering", Reuters reported at the time.