The Human Cost of Creating Venezuelan Cryptocurrency

Inside the strange and unpredictable saga of the Petro

Nicolás Maduro
The creation of the Petro, under Nicolás Maduro, sparked much controversy.
Eneas De Troya/Creative Commons
By Tobias Carroll / March 22, 2020 4:29 pm

What’s your take on cryptocurrency? If you’re an American, particularly one with a connection to the tech world, you’re probably thinking of it as an interesting experiment or something that might become a rival to national currencies. But, as a 2018 article at MarketWatch shows, cryptocurrency’s role in society differs dramatically as you begin to look around the world. Cryptocurrency has taken on a larger role in a number of countries in Africa and South America, for instance.

A 2019 analysis from the cryptocurrency exchange Bybit noted Venezuela in particular as a country where cryptocurrency had gained a foothold. “Bitcoin in particular is increasingly being seen as a worthy investment and a worthy form of currency,” noted the article.

That’s probably what led Venezuela’s president, Nicolás Maduro, to announce the development of a Venezuelan cryptocurrency, the Petro, in early 2018. A new article at The New York Times by Nathaniel Popper and Ana Vanessa Herrero explores the development of the Petro — and the conflicts that ensued.

At the center of this conflict was Gabriel Jiménez, who worked on Petro’s design and code. The article notes that while Jiménez was not a supporter of the Maduro government, he did feel that cryptocurrency could spark societal change — which led to his work on the project.

If a national cryptocurrency was done right, Mr. Jiménez believed, he could give the government what it wanted — a way to fight hyperinflation — while also stealthily introducing technology that would give Venezuelans a measure of freedom from a government that dictated every detail of daily life.

What followed was a contentious and controversial series of events, which led to clashes both ideological and pragmatic. Some of Jiménez’s employees didn’t want to work for a regime they disliked, and the idea of cryptocurrency being backed by a government also seemed dissonant to some.

The situation deteriorated further, leading to a place where — as Popper and Herrero phrase it — “Mr. Jiménez found himself feverishly coding all night under armed guard.” Since then, the Petro hasn’t made much of a mark, and Jiménez himself is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. It’s a surreal and painful saga to read about, one in which a host of political and technological conflicts converged at a single point, leaving little unscathed.

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