One evening last week, three students from the Universidad Sergio Arboleda arrived at a cultural center in Bogota’s chic Chapinero district to learn about cryptocurrencies.
They were there to attend an event called “Integracíon,” and it promised to teach them the basics: how to create a wallet, bridge and swap tokens, claim NFTs, and register ENS usernames.
John Diego, 20, and Luis Carlos Cabrera, 18, were pursuing degrees in finance; John David, 18, in computer science.
Asked how many of their friends and family were familiar with cryptocurrencies, Cabrera pointed to himself, then to his two friends.
“One, two and three,” he said with a laugh.
A couple miles away, Ethereum developers and supporters gathered at the Agora Bogota Convention Center for Devcon, Ethereum’s marquee conference, which had drawn 6,000 attendees.
They gorged themselves on presentations with titles like “Unlocking Civilizational Hypercomplexity with Ethereum” and “Recursive ZK Applications and Affordances.”
The gap between crypto’s aspirations and adoption could not have been more stark.
Devcon comes to Bogota at a time when the industry is struggling to find utility in Latin America. One the one hand, the volatile economies of Venezuela and Argentina have spurred grassroots adoption of cryptocurrencies to cope with the volatility that has whipsawed their economies for generations.
On the other, crypto writ large has yet to prove it can truly improve the livelihoods of households on a mass market basis. In El Salvador, citizens say the rollout of Bitcoin as legal tender has been a failure, according to a recent poll. President Nayib Bukele plowed $350M of the Central American nation’s precious reserves into Bitcoin only to see its value crater in the worst bear market since 2018.
The Ethereum Foundation, the nonprofit behind Devcon, has said its choice of Colombia was incidental, a matter of venue capacity and visa restrictions rather than local adoption. Nevertheless, it claims to have found “serious potential to grow a significant community presence” and the opportunity to further “real-world use of Ethereum’s technology.”
They’ve still got a long way to go. In conversations with The Defiant, developers, locals and business owners noted that few in the country own or use crypto. And those who do are pragmatic.
Ethereum isn’t the building block of a decentralized future utopia, but an opportunity to make or move money, they told The Defiant.
No Exchange Control
“It’s not because I love Satoshi Nakamoto, nothing like that,” Daniel Sanchez, who runs an OTC and arbitrage trading desk in Bogota, said. “I understand and I think it’s really special what we are creating here. But I look at it in a really pragmatic way, of looking at finances.”
There are three ways in which Colombians primarily use cryptocurrencies, according to Ignacio Trompiz, head of business development at Reserve, a stable coin protocol and mobile application developer popular in Latin America.
The most common is as a cross-border settlement layer.
“Colombian banking regulations and banking infrastructure are very bureaucratic and sort of oligopolic,” he told The Defiant. “It’s usually very hard for businesses to get dollars out of the country or inside the country, even if there’s no exchange control.”
The second is arbitrage: buy the dollar-pegged USDT stablecoin at a discount in Colombia, sell it for a dollar in the US, wire the money back home, convert to Colombian pesos and repeat.
“The rate at which stablecoins trade against the Colombian peso compared to the TRM, which is the official [dollar to peso] exchange rate for the central bank — there is usually sort of a 2 to 3% difference,” he said. “And many people speculate why that is.”
Regulatory Gray Area
Whatever the reason for the spread, several entrepreneurs have established trading desks in Colombia to take advantage of the arbitrage opportunity, including Sanchez, a 28-year-old from Caracas, Venezuela.
Sanchez was working in finance in Madrid when he heard he could buy cryptocurrency at a discount in Colombia and sell it for profit in the US. He decided to move to Bogota.
“When I realized the [opportunity] of the arbitrage here, the spread was like 9%, 10%,” he said. “Right now, that discount is between 2% and 5%.”
Sanchez asked that The Defiant not use the name of his company, due to the regulatory gray area crypto inhabits in Colombia.
“We actually are pro-regulation, because we want to say to the banks ‘look, man, I do arbitrage, and I buy USDT here and I sell it outside.’ But it’s not that easy,” he said. “The banks, they don’t really like to work with crypto currencies.”
In his interaction with banks, he never says his company works with cryptocurrencies. He and other players in the arbitrage business acquire USDT by buying it peer-to-peer, on platforms like Binance P2P or by negotiating directly with people over the phone.
Colombia comes in 15th place in Chainalysis’ most recent crypto adoption index, buoyed by its high ranking in P2P exchange trade volume. Among the top 20 countries on the index, only Vietnam, which topped the list, had greater volume in P2P exchange.
Nevertheless, adoption among retail investors is low, Trompiz said, putting it in a distant third place on his list of ways in which Colombians use crypto.
“In Venezuela, hyperinflation was so big that everyone started thinking in dollars,” he said, boosting crypto adoption there. “In Colombia, in Mexico, even in Argentina, it’s very hard to change cultural perspectives on the way people see their local currency.”
At Integracíon, volunteers helped some 50 locals take their first steps into the cryptoverse, according to Addie Giese, of Wgmi, the DAO whose members organized the event.
In a two-story building decorated in dark wood and leather, volunteers who had spent the past two days onboarding university students, local professionals and others made a beeline for the bar.
In another room far from the chatter, David, the computer science student, said few people in Colombia have heard of cryptocurrencies — something that events like Devcon and Integracíon might change, however slowly.
“It was a very cool experience that I won’t forget,” he said. “The most important thing is that … crypto, it’s growing up thanks to this conference and this meeting.”
His friend Cabrera was more circumspect, saying the industry needed to mature before he would feel comfortable jumping in.
“[Crypto] needs more regulations, you need more time, more money, more dedication,” he said. “Maybe I will continue with this, but not in this moment … now my priority is the university, my family, etc.”
Their friend Diego was the most experienced, having bought Polkadot, MATIC, and several “shitcoins” in 2019, some of which were costly pump-and-dump schemes.
“That’s when I said cryptocurrency is a thing when you have to be very careful,” he said. “I was getting very very greedy … I have to study, investigate and decide where to put my money so I don’t risk it all.”
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Tackle the Market
None spoke of crypto in high-minded terms common at Devcon, however – something those who spoke to The Defiant had in common.
“I think it’s amazing, all the decentralization and no leaders and all of that, but that’s not what guides me, really. What guides me is the efficiency of the blockchain,” Sanchez said.
Trompiz believes its use as a cross-border settlement layer will continue to grow. Whether the average Colombian ever picks it up is another matter.
“A lot of projects are starting to emerge in Colombia, FinTech projects,” he said. “They have to tackle the market, and we have to see … whether we’re in fact solving a problem. Who knows?”