A golden city on the coast of the tropical Pacific. A metal walkway suspended above a verdant volcano. And a glossy marina that looks like it belongs in Monte Carlo rather than a near failed-state besieged by some of the world’s most violent criminals.
The detailed gilded model released this week of ‘Bitcoin city’ – the first ever dedicated cryptocurrency trading hub, to be built on El Salvador’s western shore and powered by geothermal energy from a volcano – is nothing if not spectacular.
The grandiose project is the brainchild of the troubled Central American nation’s headline-grabbing populist president, Nayib Bukele, arguably now the world’s foremost cryptocurrency evangelist after foisting Bitcoin as legal tender on his largely bewildered compatriots last year. In September, every El Salvadoran citizen was given $30 worth of Bitcoin in a government issued crypto wallet – although many reported that the money mysteriously disappeared from their accounts.
Meanwhile Bukele, a 40-year-old former businessman and marketing executive with a serious Twitter habit and a penchant for wearing baseball caps backwards, has risked the ire of the International Monetary Fund, who say he is taking gratuitously ‘large risks’ with El Salvador’s precarious economy.
With the world’s highest murder rate, ravaged by mara street gangs, cartels funnelling cocaine from the Andes up to the United States, and an annual per capita GDP of just £3,000, you might think that Bukele had more pressing — and realistic — priorities than turning the region of La Union, an impoverished rural backwater on the Pacific Coast where Bitcoin city will be built, into the epicentre of the highly volatile crypto-revolution.
Yet if one thing has become clear about Latin America’s first millennial head-of-government or, as he once styled himself, ‘world’s coolest dictator’ (he seems to have only been half joking) Bukele is a master at both upping the rhetorical ante and the bait-and-switch, swiftly making new promises before El Salvadorans can realise that he has failed to keep his previous ones.