This article is a guest post by Alex Gladstein.
Bitcoin gives its users free speech, property rights, and peer-to-peer global commerce. Network-level transactions are unstoppable, with transactions done through a decentralized global competition, not a centralized company. The key to one’s savings can be hidden, memorized, or broken apart, making it the most confiscation-resistant asset on the planet. And the protocol does not discriminate, remaining open 24/7 to anyone on earth, regardless of their nationality, gender, level of wealth, creed, or ethnicity.
This collection of features has enabled people worldwide to take financial solace in Bitcoin, even or especially in places where everything else has edged towards catastrophe.
In a country of more than 200 million people, with skyrocketing inflation and a broken financial system, millions of Nigerians are turning to Bitcoin. Whether to save in a currency that doesn’t continually lose value to government thieves, or to interact in a borderless global economy, or to receive money from family or clients abroad where fiat fails, Bitcoin is on the rise in Africa’s most populous country. Satoshi’s creation is even shining here as a human rights tool: in the fall of 2020, thousands of Nigerian youth organized protests against the country’s notorious special police forces. Protest organizers tried to raise funds with popular fintech products, but those were shut down. Bitcoin remained, and helped them raise hundreds of thousands of dollars to obtain valuable equipment and keep the protests going.
Over the past three years the Chinese Communist Party has tried to extinguish freedom and democracy in Hong Kong. Dissidents have paid the highest price, with human rights groups, opposition politicians, journalists, and artists facing jail, exile, or confiscation of their financial assets. Carrie Lam’s government has been keen to freeze the bank accounts of people and organizations they do not like, to quiet or silence its critics. During this time, Hong Kong democracy advocates realized they could exchange their freezable fiat for confiscation-resistant Bitcoin. The city’s Bitcoin ATMs -- which don’t require ID -- provided a valuable lifeline, as BTC was able to be sent into Hong Kong from abroad, and then exchanged for local currency as needed, to support creative and brave minds whose dissent prevented them from using the fiat system.
As a result of Western sanctions, Iranians have been cut off from the outside world. Their dictatorial government -- which does not permit free and fair elections, or any semblance of civil liberties -- has decided to turn to the money printer to fill the needs that international commerce once filled. The outcome has been staggering inflation, officially ranging between 20% and 40% over the last decade, where the average Iranian has lost most of their savings, and has been unable to interact with foreign businesses or even family or friends abroad. Iranians worldwide have turned to Bitcoin as a parallel system, whether they are sending funds from the West to families within, or using it inside in places like Tehran or Shiraz to save in a currency that cannot be debased. For millions of people who didn’t get to elect their government, and shouldn’t be held responsible for the crimes of their rulers, Bitcoin is the only way out.
Zimbabweans are still living the tragic legacy of Robert Mugabe, a revolutionary hero-turned-kleptocratic tyrant. Mugabe decimated the Zimbabwean economy, printing the currency into oblivion, making the 100 trillion dollar note a global meme. While this captured the imagination of people worldwide, in reality it was the cause of tremendous suffering for Zimbabweans, who even after Mugabe’s ouster remain trapped in a repressive system with high inflation, capital controls, and barely any access to the financial products and services those in the West take for granted. An increasing number of Zimbabweans are turning to Bitcoin. One educational project, called Exonumia, has been translating Bitcoin educational materials and books into Shona, the most popular local language.
Hugo Chávez rose to power in Venezuela on the promise to help the poor, but ultimately left one of the world’s largest refugee crises behind as a legacy. His government and his hand-picked successor Nicolas Maduro destroyed civil liberties, eliminated the independent media, hunted down the opposition, and orchestrated so much corruption and economic mismanagement that despite massive oil exports, Venezuela became home to the world’s worst case of hyperinflation. Lower and middle class Venezuelans lost everything in the past decade. Millions fled. But some were able to bring their savings with them, in the form of Bitcoin, which began seeing wider adoption in the country as early as 2015.
In the summer of 2020, nationwide protests broke out against the multi-decade regime of Aleksandr Lukashenko. Having ruled Belarus with an iron first for nearly 30 years, Lukashenko was now trying to rig elections that under any free and fair circumstance would have finally ousted him. As the protests wore on into late 2020 and early 2021, one of the regime’s favorite tactics was freezing the bank accounts of protestors and conducting financial surveillance of opposition groups. In response, the grassroots activist coalition BYSOL began working with HRF to send money into the hands of striking workers and NGO leaders via the Bitcoin Network. Aid recipients would choose to either sell the BTC for rubles to buy needed goods, or save for the future. As of early 2020, more than $5 million worth of cryptocurrency has been sent into the hands of thousands of Belarusians, acting as a key factor to help protests keep going.
In February 2022, Vladimir Putin’s army invaded Ukraine, disrupting the global order. More than 6 million Ukrainians have fled their country as refugees, and hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled their country, too. Bitcoin is proving its utility as “refugee money,” as Ukrainians and Russians who can no longer use their bank accounts or fintech apps still have access to their Bitcoin. Want to send money to friends or family in Ukraine or Russia? Broken systems make it impossible. But Bitcoin fixes this, and sustains a peer-to-peer connection to anyone with internet access in the world. This was especially important for Ukrainian aid efforts in the first few days after the invasion, as fiat systems were completely down. The Ukrainian government also pioneered another novel use case for Bitcoin, raising more than $100 million in BTC, stablecoins, and other cryptocurrencies to defend itself from the Russian invasion.
Today the French government still exerts control over 15 African countries through the colonial CFA currency. Togo and Senegal are two such countries, part of a region that’s two-thirds the size of India and encompassing more than 180 million people. These individuals have no monetary sovereignty: the CFA is not convertible, and must be transferred to euros before leaving the country as it is worthless outside the CFA zone. Over the past 75 years, the French have devalued the CFA against the Franc and now Euro by more than 99%. As a result of this monetary colonialism, 14 of the 15 countries remain dictatorships, and more than half (including Chad and Mali) make up the poorest countries in the world. Today, individuals like Fodé Diop and Farida Nabourema are using Bitcoin as a peaceful protest against the CFA system. With HRF’s support, they are holding a Bitcoin conference in Accra, Ghana this December 7-10 to continue to build this financial resistance movement to empower human rights defenders and ordinary people.
12 years ago WikiLeaks publicly shared confidential US military information, including a video of an apparent American war crime in Iraq, and an exhaustive log of Afghan War operations, in an effort that drew comparisons to the Pentagon Papers. In response, US officials pressured Paypal, Amazon, MasterCard, and Visa to cut off service to WikiLeaks and Julian Assange, who sought refuge in the UK. It became impossible to use the politicized fiat system to support this whistleblowing cause. In December 2010, Satoshi Nakamoto made an appeal to WikiLeaks against using Bitcoin. “The heat you would bring,” Satoshi said, “would likely destroy us at this stage.” Over the following months, Satoshi would disappear forever, but WikiLeaks would start to raise funds in Bitcoin, raising thousands of unstoppable BTC from supporters across the globe to sustain their work against the wishes of the world’s most powerful government.
In February 2022, something shocking happened. The government of one of the world’s most stable democratic societies froze the bank accounts of protestors, accusing them of terrorism. Justin Trudeau’s administration also froze centralized crowdfunding mechanisms like GoFundMe. But the state couldn’t stop the “trucker” protestors from raising more than a million dollars in Bitcoin. Despite operational security miscues that led to the seizure of some of the Bitcoin at the home of one of the protest organizers, 70% of the Bitcoin donated was distributed to individual truckers, peer-to-peer. Contrast this to the 0% of the centralized crowdfunding that made it to its end goal, and we begin to see how powerful Bitcoin will be as protest money for the 21st century.