Country Collapsing? Let Them Eat Bitcoin

On the evening of Jan. 28, a mysterious Russian airliner without any passengers landed in Caracas, the capital of Venezuela. Rumour had it the plane was there to transport to Russia 20 tonnes of the nation’s gold reserves worth over $1.1 billion. Russia claimed to know nothing about it.

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No, this was not a James Bond movie.

So what exactly was Venezuela’s disputed leader Nicolás Maduro up to? After all, he’d already failed trying to withdraw Venezuela’s gold reserves out of the Bank of England. No one knows, at least not yet.

But this moment is why some say cryptocurrencies could be key to survival for people caught in the midst of a national economic meltdown like Venezuela’s.

“That is a perfect advertisement of why you should use Bitcoin,” argues Bitcoin.com’s Latin America head Matt Aaron.

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Not only that, figuring out how to give Venezuelans cryptocurrency is an exciting way to “potentially reinvent not-for-profit work,” says Vancouver-based investor Boris Wertz of his related charitable efforts.

Could they be right? I was forced to check my assumptions.

AGAINST ‘ETHICS DUMPING’

In 2015, the University of Oxford convened a summit at the World Humanitarian Conference to draft a set of principles for ethical humanitarian innovation.

The draft guidelines reinforce the humanitarian principle of maleficence or “do no harm” and the innovation ethos of experimentation, but in a way that conforms with internationally recognized ethical standards. For the latter, this means researchers need to follow the Declaration of Helsinki of 1964 and the Nuremberg Code of 1947 (that arose from the gruesome Holocaust experimentation on humans) and undergo institutional ethics review board assessments — practices probably not top of mind for fast-moving tech startups.

To combat ethics dumping — scientific and social research that exploits people in places with low incomes and lax rights protections — a coalition of researchers from Europe, Africa and Asia named TRUST created a code of conduct called Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-Poor Settings.

The code of conduct consists of four values — fairness, respect, care and honesty — and accompanying guidelines for each. Similar to the aforementioned draft principles for ethical humanitarian innovation, it recommends that researchers obtain ethics approval in their home countries, but further recommends researchers also obtain ethics approval from the host country. — Melody Ma

I have been relentlessly skeptical of cryptocurrencies. To me, they’ve seemed like vapourware traded by two types of people: libertarians innately distrusting of financial institutions or speculators hoping to get rich quick.

In 2013, Vancouver became home of the first ever Bitcoin ATM in the world, located in a Waves coffee shop next to the B.C. Supreme Court. Some of my friends rushed to feed stacks of their hard-earned cash into the machine in exchange for prized bits of virtual coin. I held off.

Recently though, because I have a friend from Venezuela with family members still there, I imagine myself living in a country where the currency has inflated a million per cent in less than a year. And I am not sure whether to boo or cheer the many cryptocurrency startups rushing into Venezuela right now.

I am going to refer to my Venezuelan Canadian friend by a made-up name, Lola, to protect her mother and other relatives still living in Venezuela.

In Vancouver, Lola helps organize elections and plebiscites for Venezuelans living in Western Canada. Lola co-founded a group called Action for Venezuela that fundraises with the UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) for Venezuelan refugees. She advocates passionately to bring attention to the dire conditions in her homeland.

Rich in oil reserves, Venezuela should be the envy of many other countries. Yet economic mismanagement and other destabilizing forces have devastated it. Its currency, the bolivar, named after “El Libertador” of South America Simón Bolívar, is worthless. “People can’t buy medication. They can’t buy food. Your salary is worth nothing,” Lola told me after recently returning from Venezuela.  

Credit cards there are almost as useless as cash, she said, because card companies cannot adjust the credit limits quickly enough to keep up with inflation. A single trip to the grocery store exceeds the limit set the previous month. Lola…

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