For years, Mario Blacutt dared not reveal his name. He was a citizen of Bolivia, whose state pursued crypto traders with a religious zeal. Any mention of Blacutt’s true identity could land him in jail – or worse. So people knew him simply as ‘Berzeck.’
Until now. Last November Bolivia’s longtime President Evo Morales was ousted in a military coup. Under interim President Jeanine Áñez, Blacutt finally felt safe enough to announce his involvement in NULS, an open-source blockchain platform with roots in Asia. Latin America has many of the highest crypto adoption rates on earth, reflecting widespread mistrust in local currencies. And with COVID-19 set to supercharge a new global recession, Blacutt expects blockchain use to soar.
“Brazil, Colombia and Argentina are probably the countries in which blockchain development has been most developed,” admits Blacutt. “However, there is still no secure legal regulatory framework, so it did not reach mass adoption.
“Overall, companies and developers living in countries that have little confidence in their financial systems are accelerating their participation in crypto, and I believe the next global recession will certainly accelerate this process,” he adds. “Even if we are enduring a global catastrophe, at least some things will change for the better.”
Blacutt’s chance to champion decentralized currency has been a long time coming. Around 2014 he first bought Bitcoin with a friend. That year, Morales’ government became Latin America’s first to ban cryptocurrency, as it sought tighter control over the economy.
Morales, the first Bolivian leader to come from its indigenous population, was an early revelation on the continent, issuing swaths of socialist economic reforms that, among other things, halved poverty rates and boosted Bolivia’s GDP by 5%.
But Morales stifled opposition, and sought an unconstitutional fourth term in office. Cryptocurrency was a threat to his grip on the nation. So he banned it.
Tales of underground crypto kings and queens were commonplace in larger South American states like Venezuela, whose leader Nicolás Maduro clung to the ideals of deceased President Hugo Chávez. But diminutive Bolivia, a nation of 11.35 million people wedged between the Amazon Rainforest and Atacama Desert: not so much.
Still, the ban worried Blacutt, a software developer. He repurposed the name of a 1980s Atari video game called Berzerk, and bought Bitcoin by wiring cash to a bank in neighboring Peru – then onto an exchange. He always used a VPN. Bitcoin had been shrouded in anonymity since its very beginning: the identity of creator Satoshi Nakamoto is still unknown.
Barcutt never faced jail time for his crypto activities. The law didn’t forbid owning Bitcoin – just paying with it. But banks made Barcutt’s life difficult, closing accounts and credit cards. “The legal reason banks used was an article in the contract where they reserve the right to close accounts for whatever reason they see fit,” he says. “They blatantly told people that it is for their ‘protection’ and on top of that, they charged a fee for this ‘protection.'”
Barcutt grew certain cryptocurrency could help people sidestep what he believed was a corrupt state, and devised a microservices solution. He presented ideas to a handful of projects but got little feedback. Then he learned about NULS, which features microservices, smart contracts, cross-chain interoperability, and instant chain-building.
“It was a perfect fit,” he says. “I developed my idea even more and presented it to the developers and founders. They recognized the potential in a few minutes.” So enamored were NULS’ leadership with Barcutt’s proposal, that they substituted it for their own NULS 2.0 rollout in September 2019.
Then, just days later, violence broke out across Bolivia. Thirty-three people died. Morales, facing heavy opposition from neighboring heads-of-state, trade unions and the military, fled to Mexico. Lawyer Áñez seized power, in a coup the White House praised. At last, Barcutt felt free enough to poke his head above the parapet.
“It was a very ugly time in my country,” he says. “As I am an optimist by nature, I choose to remember it with a small dose of melancholy…In the bear market you always have aggressive people trying to destroy things. You have to stand your ground and fight for what you believe in.”
The Morales years have set Bolivian crypto back, Barcutt admits. “Blockchain technology was not given the opportunity to evolve properly, so even acquiring crypto is difficult,” he says. “This, coupled with the fact that we are an underdeveloped country with relatively little and costly Internet access and bad general public education, makes things worse.
“Even though we currently have a transitional government, these laws are still in effect so it will take time.”
In the meantime, Barcutt will continue contributing to a tech industry that has performed surprisingly well of late. Bolivia has long been coveted for its mineral resources. But recently it has undergone a quiet digital revolution. More than 200 software development companies export around $30m. That figure doesn’t include independent workers, who could push the real figure up past $50m.
According to the 2019 Stack Overflow Developer Survey, Bolivia is home to almost 11,000 developers. Almost 78% of the country is online, with over half having a Facebook account. One of America’s leading tech figures, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure, is a Bolivian-American.
These are inspiring things for young Bolivian developers – not least Barcutt, delighted to do his work out in the open. Soon, he hopes, other Latin America cryptocurrency users can follow his move above ground.
“Countries like Venezuela have even more problems than Bolivia,” he says. “This will need to change because banning crypto is like trying to ban the Internet. In reality, you ban yourself from the Internet and not the other way around. The sooner the countries accept this fact, the more likely they will be able to compete in what will undoubtedly be the technological revolution of this decade.”