Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador, is taking his public persona of a millennial disruptor to new heights and to a place where no one can predict the consequences. The Central American country is going to be the first in the world to adopt bitcoin as an official currency, a decision that has been announced in English and fast-tracked by a parliament that is controlled by his party, and without offering much explanation to citizens. The move couldn’t come at a more delicate time. All over the world, ransomware attacks – malicious programs used by cybercriminals to block access to an IT system or seize data – are on the rise, paralyzing entire economic sectors, and are based on hackers’ preferred currency: bitcoin.
“This will generate jobs and will help to provide financial inclusion to thousands of people who are outside the formal economy,” Bukele explained to applause last Saturday when he announced the proposal, via a video that was presented at a cryptocurrency conference being held in Miami. The message, which was broadcast in English, was aimed at an audience of technology and cryptocurrency fans. But this was also the first time that a large section of El Salvador’s people had heard about the new currency, which will soon be in their lives. Bukele was presented by Jack Mallers, the director of the payment platform Strike. The 27-year-old spent three months in El Salvador.
In the video of the event, Mallers is seen explaining that during his journey he met Yusef, one of the president’s younger brothers. “If you sort out the problem of money, you can sort out the problems of the world,” says the young man, before pointing to the fact that Salvadoreans who live in the United States will be able to send money to their families without having to pay expensive commissions.
Mallers then makes way for the president, who appears on a screen: “In the medium and long term we are hoping that this small decision will help us to push humanity, at least a little bit, in the right direction,” said Bukele, to huge applause from the audience, but without specifying how. Shortly afterward, the 39-year-old president took to Twitter to respond to questions, and estimated that if 1% of the current capitalization of bitcoin were invested in his country, it could boost gross domestic product (GDP) by 25%.
“People were applauding him like he were a televangelist,” El Faro journalist Nelson Rauda told EL PAÍS. Rauda has been covering the legislative approval of this measure. “He started there and didn’t stop. He even put that laser-eyes thing [on his Twitter photo, a symbol used by fans of bitcoin] and many public servants imitated him; he started tweeting in English and went back to being that Nayib Bukele who seduced international people at the start of his term of office.” Three days after that megaevent in Miami, on Tuesday, the law arrived at the Legislative Assembly. There, the president’s party, Nuevas Ideas (New Ideas), which has a majority, ignored all the usual procedures to see it pass. The legislation was fast-tracked in just five hours and with barely any debate.
‘Cool’ once more
Despite the fact that bitcoins will be an official currency in El Salvador in fewer than 90 days, Rauda says that Bukele has not yet explained the decision at any kind of press conference, only resorting to social media and speaking about the plan mostly in English. What’s more, while parliamentarians dealt with the legislation in the Legislative Assembly, the president was using the audio debate forum on Twitter, called Spaces, to explain the law to an English-speaking audience, accompanied by his brother Karim.
“I started to listen and I said, ‘It makes no sense to continue listening to the proposed law, which is two pages, and the deputies are talking about things that have no relevance,” Rauda explains. “On Spaces, they were giving out many details about the law that they weren’t giving during the parliamentary session. There were absurd things, like in the Assembly they were saying that the use of bitcoin was not going to be obligatory, but the president was asked the same thing and he said it would be.”
This decision to implement the use of bitcoin in his country and focus on the international public has been interpreted by the director of the NGO Acción Ciudadana (Citizen Action), Eduardo Escobar, as being a “smokescreen” to distract from the problems that have seen his government called into question, as well as a way to “change his image on an international level” at a time when the country is moving away from the United States and international bodies and getting closer to China.
“There was a coup, on May 1, managed by Bukele and supported by the Legislative Assembly, where they removed the judges and the public prosecutor,” explains Escobar. “Last week we found out that the government was expelling the CICIES [the International Commission against the Impunity of El Salvador] because it was investigating 12 corruption cases against the current government.” Escobar compares the adoption of the cryptocurrency to the adoption of the US dollar in the country in 2001, which was carried out “without consultation, behind the back of the public and from one day to the next.”
“We are coming off the back of a series of things that have damaged his image and with this, he’s returned to being the cool Nayib, the admired Nayib, someone who is audacious, revolutionary,” Rauda adds. “It’s like a return to the ‘back to basics’ for him.” While Bukele is enjoying levels of popularity above 70% at home, the decision to adopt bitcoin and the subsequent order to generate a plan so that the cryptocurrency can be mined using energy harnessed from the country’s volcanoes has also seen him win new followers among the fans of this technology.
A virtual ‘Wild West’
Beyond the world of geeks, doubts and uncertainty dominate the analysis of this decision by experts and the most critical sectors in his country. “The cybersecurity risks associated with the integration of cryptocurrency into the nation’s financial system are innumerable,” says Steven Silberstein, the general director of FS-ISAC, a global organization that exchanges cyber-intelligence and that focuses on financial institutions. Governments have been working for decades to ensure that banks and financial institutions are secure, given that these days they are considered to be “crucial infrastructure,” the specialist explains. “Substantial resources have been invested to guarantee that the billions of people who depend on a stable financial system can spend their days without worrying about a catastrophic financial collapse derived from a large-scale cyberattack.”
Silberstein points to a devastating episode in 2014, when a cryptocurrency exchange in Japan called Mt Gox was hacked and hundreds of thousands of bitcoins were stolen. Today, each bitcoin is worth around $36,000 (€29,000) each, meaning that the value of the damage today runs into the billions. What was stolen was never recovered, in part because it is very difficult to track who possesses cryptocurrencies, unlike with money that has been deposited into an account. This type of currency is not backed by people, organizations or the trust of a bank, but rather by a secret mathematical language called cryptography.
A month ago, United States President Joe Biden made a special televised appearance to speak about a cyberattack that paralyzed a gas pipeline, which saw hackers extort the company and demand that they pay them in bitcoin in exchange for unlocking the IT system. This was the first time that a leader of that country had spoken about the problem of ransomware, a type of cyberattack that usually sees criminals demand something in exchange for freeing a computer system. Senator Elizabeth Warren published a message last week in which she referred to cryptocurrencies as the “new Wild West” and called for strict regulations aimed at protecting investors and weakening cybercrime.
“The use of cryptocurrencies has certainly allowed for ransomware attacks,” Silberstein explains. According to Chainalysis, a company that analyzes these issues, the practice caused $350 million (€288 million) of losses last year, a rise of 311% on 2019 – this coincides with an exponential rise in the demand and the price of cryptocurrencies on a global scale. From the US to Ukraine, attacks of this type have paralyzed financial markets, government ministries and even nuclear power plants.
In the case of El Salvador, the fact that bitcoin will be used alongside the US dollar as an official currency makes the proposal even riskier, given that the legalization of bitcoin as a national means of payment will facilitate the conversion of ill-gotten gains – such as the spoils from ransomware attacks – into clean funds. “Given that El Salvador uses the dollar, will this turn the country into an alternative reference point for turning income from ransomware and other types of digital extorsion into cash?” asks Silberstein.
Bitcoin is a massively volatile currency and the way that banks take care of a currency’s volatility is via interest rates. As such, it’s possible that there could be a rise in interest rates
Ricardo Castaneda, economist at the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies
“President Bukele likes to put on a good show and this proposal raises his image as a disruptive millennial who is shaking things up in El Salvador,” says Risa Grais-Targow, a Central America analyst at Eurasia Group. “He is making the proposal as a way to create dynamism in the economy, but on studying the context, where there are accusations of corruption aimed at people close to him, the economic policy feels very improvised,” she explains, speaking by phone from New York.
In May, the US State Department published a list of 17 corrupt Central American officials, including Bukele’s Cabinet chief Carolina Recinos, the former security minister Rogelio Rivas, and legislator Guillermo Gallegos, the leader of the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, which took the president to power in 2019. While this list has not had any immediate effect, this month the Enel List is expected to be published, which may include specific sanctions for bank accounts in the US, on international transactions, and visa restrictions for those who are targeted.
“In this context, doing anything that creates more concern about transparency, or possible money laundering, feels like adding to the confrontation or perhaps moving away from the road toward a constructive relationship with the US,” Grais-Targow argues. If Bukele forces citizens to use bitcoin, this could drive a wedge into the use of the dollar, in a way that could undermine the future of the country’s dollarization. As such, this proposal could be interpreted as a step toward “dedollarization,” without strictly being a plan to get rid of the currency altogether.
The United States is the country with the greatest weight over the decisions taken by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with whom Bukele is negotiating a loan that could be as big as $1.3 billion (€1.07 million), and which would be used to drive the economic recovery from the coronavirus crisis. On Thursday, an IMF spokesperson said that the fund’s authorities would meet with Bukele to discuss the issue, and warned that the “adoption of bitcoin as legal tender raises a number of macroeconomic, financial and legal issues that require very careful analysis.”
Legal and obligatory
The new law approved by the Legislative Assembly in El Salvador will force all businesses to offer bitcoin as a payment method, meaning that Salvadoreans will have to invest in the necessary technology for their businesses. The president said on social media that the use of the Strike application will be prioritized. The system works like a digital wallet, and will allow citizens to pay their taxes in bitcoin. As such, the public finances will be exposed to the sudden devaluations of this cryptocurrency, which has fallen up to 22% in a single day.
The law also establishes that any debt can be converted into bitcoin. “This puts the risk in the banking system, because banks are obliged to take payment in bitcoin, bringing all the complexities that has with it,” explains Ricardo Castaneda, an economist at the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies (ICEFI) in San Salvador. “Bitcoin is a massively volatile currency and the way that banks take care of a currency’s volatility is via interest rates. As such, it’s possible that there could be a rise in interest rates,” something that would see Salvadoreans pay more to service their debts.
The government claims that it will absorb this risk, which Castaneda argues “is a fallacy, because the government is funded by taxes, right? In reality, it will be the poorest people who will have to assume this risk, because in the end all of it is going to be paid as taxes.”
“It’s worrying that they might touch the pensions, that they could convert them into bitcoin,” says Escobar from Acción Ciudadana. “The adjective that describes us is uncertainty, a lack of knowledge and uncertainty about what the government is going to do and the implications it could have,” he complains. “We don’t have any information, nor do we know what the objective is.”
When you consider that 70% of the country’s economy is informal, it’s difficult to imagine that so many citizens could be incorporated into the banking and taxation system, simply because they can now use bitcoin, Castaneda adds. And those who can, would be exposed to fluctuations in price and cybersecurity risks.
“We can assume that many consumers will be relatively or completely new to cryptocurrencies and the platforms used to sell and store them,” says Silberstein from the FS-ISAC. “Without a mass campaign of cybernetic education, consumers could be easy prey for sophisticated cybercriminals who use phishing and other fraud to obtain access to their accounts. There is no support for cryptocurrency like there is for currencies backed by the central bank,” he adds.
For Nelson Ruada, the impression is that in El Salvador, the debate about bitcoin is one for people with money, something that “the majority of the country doesn’t have.” That’s why he believes that at the megaevent in Miami, at which there was talk for the first time about making the cryptocurrency official, the hook for citizens was the fact that they could send currency without paying commissions. The money sent home by citizens residing abroad represents more than 20% of the country’s GDP. However, the journalist warns that this is a “sales promise. There is no public document that refers to that.”
With the popularity of Bukele, says Escobar, the president – a publicist by profession – could sell anything he wanted to. “People are not bothered that no one has told them anything about bitcoin. What he says, in general, is the blessed word. That’s how people take it. What he has managed to build is not a government, but rather a sect that worships his personality.”
English version by Simon Hunter.
WHO concerned about first cases of monkeypox in children | Science & Tech
Reports of young children infected by monkeypox in Europe – there were at least four in recent days, with a fifth one recorded a few weeks ago – have raised concern about the progress of an outbreak now affecting more than 5,500 people in 51 countries.
The health organization’s Europe chief, Hans Kluge, also warned on Friday that overall cases in the region have tripled in the last two weeks. “Urgent and coordinated action is imperative if we are to turn a corner in the race to reverse the ongoing spread of this disease,” said Kluge.
The WHO has not yet declared the outbreak a global health emergency, however. At a meeting last Saturday, the agency ruled it out but said it could change its views if certain scenarios come to pass, such as a spike in cases among vulnerable groups like children, pregnant women and immunocompromised people. Available data shows that children, especially younger ones, are at higher risk of serious illness if they become infected.
The last known case of a child contracting monkeypox was reported on Tuesday in Spain, where a three-year-old was confirmed to have the disease. Cases in Spain are now in excess of 1,500 according to health reports filed by regional governments.
Also on Tuesday, Dutch authorities reported that a primary school student had become infected and that contact tracing had been initiated to rule out more cases within the child’s close circle of contacts. On Saturday, France reported one confirmed case and one suspected case among elementary school students.
The UK has so far recorded at least two infections in minors. The first case, reported in May, involved a baby who had to be taken to intensive care for treatment with the antiviral Tecovirimat, of which few doses are available but which has already begun to be distributed in several countries. British authorities this week reported a second case of a child with monkeypox. The UK currently has the biggest monkeypox outbreak beyond Africa.
The main vaccine being used against monkeypox was originally developed for smallpox. The European Medicines Agency said earlier this week it was beginning to evaluate whether the shot should be authorized for monkeypox. The WHO has said supplies of the vaccine, made by Bavarian Nordic, are extremely limited.
Until May, monkeypox had never been known to cause large outbreaks beyond Africa, where the disease is endemic in several countries and mostly causes limited outbreaks when it jumps to people from infected wild animals.
Jury calls for sweeping reforms to Canada’s approach to femicide | Canada
A community in rural Canada has made a series of transformative recommendations at a coroner’s inquest that – if adopted – could position the country’s most populous province as a leader in preventing femicides, particularly those carried out by an intimate partner.
The jury in Renfrew County, Ontario, just west of Canada’s capital, delivered 86 recommendations this week in a unanimous verdict on the deaths of three local women, who were killed by the same man on a single morning nearly seven years ago.
The boldest was to have the Ontario government “formally declare intimate partner violence as an epidemic” that requires “significant financial investment” and deep systemic change to remedy.
Since the triple homicide on 22 September 2015, 111 women in Ontario have been murdered by their current or former partner, the inquest heard. Every six days in Canada, a woman is killed by her intimate partner, according to Statistics Canada.
The jury also recommended official prominence be given to the word “femicide” – to have it be listed as a manner of death by coroners in the province and added to the criminal code of Canada to underscore the misogyny beneath the killings of women and girls because of their gender.
“A lot of the recommendations are groundbreaking,” said Pamela Cross, a lawyer and expert on intimate partner violence in Ontario who testified at the inquest.
The inquest, which heard from nearly 30 witnesses over three weeks, was meant to examine the systems that broke down in the weeks, months and years leading up to the day Basil Borutski got in a borrowed car, drove to Carol Culleton’s cottage and strangled her with a coaxial cable, then moved on to Anastasia Kuzyk’s house where he shot her to death and then to Nathalie Warmerdam’s farm where he shot her too.
All three women had previously been in an intimate relationship with Borutski. He had been in and out of jail for assaulting Kuzyk and Warmerdam and was on probation at the time of the murders and subject to a weapons ban.
Borutski had been flagged as “high risk” two years before the triple homicide, the inquest heard, and exhibited 30 out of 41 risk factors identified by Ontario’s domestic violence death review committee – including a deep sense of victimhood and the ability to convince new partners he was innocent and unfairly targeted by police in his prior convictions.
Police witnesses told the jury Borutski was very good at “manipulation” and constantly flouted court orders, including never showing up to a mandated partner assault response program.
The jury heard from family members, including Valerie Warmerdam, Nathalie’s daughter, who painted a nuanced and empathetic picture of Borutski as a troubled stepfather. It heard from a frontline worker who described Warmerdam and Kuzyk’s constant terror that Borutski would kill them or harm their family.
The inquest jury demanded decision-makers make “significant financial investments” in ending violence, have police all use the same records management system and create clear guidelines for flagging high-risk abusers. It urged the study of disclosure protocols like Clare’s Law, which is used in the United Kingdom and in parts of Canada to allow a concerned person to check if their partner has a police record of intimate partner violence.
Valerie Warmerdam welcomed the verdict, but underscored the need for action on the part of governments who will receive these recommendations in the wake of the inquest. “I want change,” she said. “These recommendations are a good start, if they are actioned. That’s a big if.”
Kirsten Mercer, counsel to End Violence Against Women Renfrew County (EVA), noted that it was the jury themselves who added the epidemic recommendation among 13 others, including creating a registry of high-risk offenders akin to the sex offenders registry, and exploring electronic monitoring of those charged or found guilty of an IPV-related offence.
“The jury has asked that we tell the truth about intimate partner violence,” Mercer told the media after the verdict. “The jury has asked that we put our money where our mouth is.”
The idea to add femicide to the coroner’s list of manners of death and to the Criminal Code of Canada came from the joint submission. Countries in Latin America have already added this as a criminal offence, she said, and should be looked to as a model for how to do it here.
Accountability was a priority for this jury, Mercer said. The verdict called for the creation of an accountability body akin to the United Kingdom’s domestic abuse commissioner and a specific committee to make sure this verdict does not just languish in decision-makers’ inboxes.
“We are not going to wait forever any more.”
Apollo Go: The Beijing neighborhood with robotaxis and driverless delivery service | International
Book a robotaxi on a mobile app and it will pick you up in less than 10 minutes. It’s 2:00pm on a Thursday in Beijing and our ride is going smoothly with no human intervention so far. “Sometimes we have to speed up manually to avoid causing traffic jams. Bicycles and motorcycles often cause traffic congestion because they ignore traffic signals,” says the driver supervising our trip, as the steering wheel magically moves by itself.
The 37-square-mile (60 square kilometers) Beijing High-level Automated Driving Demonstration Area (BJHAD) is where the country’s first pilot project to use autonomous vehicles on public roads is happening. Located in a secluded district in the southeastern part of the city, BJHAD is the test site for a futuristic plan that envisions turning Beijing into the standard-bearer for artificial intelligence (AI). The Apollo robotaxis manufactured by Baidu and the autonomous delivery vehicles manufactured by JD.com (aka Jingdong) zip around a tranquil utopia that stands in stark contrast to the hectic jungle of downtown traffic.
“[A robotaxi] can handle an average of 15 daily bookings, most of which are trips between a subway stop and an office,” said the cab driver. In November 2021, Baidu and Pony.ai became the first companies authorized to operate a fleet of 100 robotaxis in BJHAD. As of April 2022, humans are no longer required to sit in the driver’s seat of the robotaxi, which is allowed to travel at a maximum speed of 37 miles per hour (60 kph). The service is free for now, although the two companies are commercially licensed.
Baidu, China’s leading search engine, is diversifying its business by commercializing its AI and intelligent transportation technology. Its Apollo Go program is currently operating in seven cities, and the company plans to expand to 65 cities by 2025, and 100 cities by 2030. Unlike the Waymo robotaxis that Google began operating in 2020 in the US, Baidu’s vehicles circulate during the day, enabling them to collect more data.
Although Baidu has topped the list of Chinese companies with the most patents for AI applications over the last four years, e-commerce giant JD.com is the leader in the autonomous delivery vehicle space. In 2016, Jingdong established its headquarters in BJHAD, and its delivery robots now dominate the streets. These vehicles mainly transport orders from the 7FRESH smart supermarket chain operated by JD that combines e-commerce and traditional commerce. “Instead of people going out to buy products, we deliver them,” said Yang Han. Who works in Jingdong’s communications department.
JD’s applies big data analytical methods to the information collected from more than 400 million annual users, and utilizes it to tailor inventories to the specific needs of each 7FRESH physical stores location. The entire 7FRESH inventory is available in the app. The delivery robots, which travel at nine miles per hour (15 kph) and can carry 220-440 pounds (100-200 kilos), deliver orders in less than an hour within a three-mile (five kilometer) range.
JD employees rely on smaller robots to send documents and other items between offices in 10 minutes or less. “They speed up the work and saves us from having to run around from one place to another,” said Yang Han. The robots are able to operate elevators and open doors by themselves as they follow their delivery routes.
The robots can recognize their surroundings and avoid obstacles with a 98% accuracy rate for small objects. Information streams in through cameras and other sensors, while the navigation algorithm pinpoints their location and plans routes. JD’s cloud-based simulation platform accumulates data from every trip to continuously improve the robots’ capabilities.
The Covid pandemic spurred JD to accelerate its autonomous delivery program, enabling it to deploy small and large delivery vehicles to the Chinese cities most affected by the pandemic over the last two and a half years. In early 2020, during the peak of the pandemic in Wuhan, these delivery vehicles traveled a total of 4,225 miles (6,800 kilometers) and delivered more than 13,000 packages.
In a country where low unemployment is one of the main pillars of its social stability goals, the move to autonomous vehicles may prove to be risky in the long run. However, Yang Han insists that the objective is to “achieve a synergy between humans and machines… The goal is to take the pressure off delivery drivers and allow them to focus on customer service and vehicle maintenance. The couriers don’t need to transport the goods. Instead, they wait by the curb for the robots to arrive, and then walk the goods to the customer’s door. “
BJHAD is part of the Beijing Economic and Technological Development Area, the first place in China specifically geared to AI research. The country aspires to become the world leader in AI by 2030 and to leave the “factory for the world” image behind for good.
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