Cryptocurrencies in Central America Amidst the Need for Vaccine Coordination

COVID-19 Reports on Latin America and the Caribbean: No. 58

President Bukele in El Salvador instituted some of the toughest measures in the region to contain the pandemic, and managed to win a major victory in his control of the legislature. His pandemic relief efforts included 3 months of frozen utilities charges, and $300/month subsidies to stay at home are wildly popular. However, as the IMF reports, the early lockdowns in the second quarter of 2020 prevented an explosion of deaths at the time but did not stop the pandemic from later wreaking havoc in the region. Bukele has been focused on turning its economy around by being the first nation attempting to adopt Bitcoin and Cryptocurrencies as legal tender. 

Cryptocurrencies is the latest battleground for Bukele in his aim to restabilize El Salvador out of the Pandemic. The significant growth in popularity for cryptocurrencies in the region had been marked by Venezuela in its efforts to avoid economic sanctions as highlighted by our colleague, Victoria de la Torre, in her report number 22. Bitcoin and Remittances to El Salvador is a major incentive because it will take away the fees that banks impose on remittances. A second reason is speed as given by Bukele in that Bitcoin “will have 10 million potential new users” and is “the fastest growing way to transfer 6 billion dollars a year in remittances”. The third reason may be to become independent from the world monetary system.

The critics grow and so are the counterarguments in favor of Bukele and his progressive initiatives. Some say that “Bukele has been labeled an autocrat, a dictator and a human rights violator by Republicans and Democrats, The New York Times and The Washington Post. The reason is clear: Bukele is pursuing the interests of the Salvadoran people rather than that of the U.S. Embassy. So, the most popular elected leader in Latin America is on Uncle Sam’s shit list.

Many fear that President Bukele shows signs of authoritarianism like those of dictator Ortega in Nicaragua and predict an erosion of civil liberties and democracy. The jury is still out. The reality is that COVID 19 is still devastating the entire region. According to Reuters, of every 100 infections last reported around the world, about 31 were reported from countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The region is currently reporting a million new infections about every 6 days and has reported more than 36,255,000 since the pandemic began. Vaccinations are ongoing at the same time but at a very different pace depending on the country.

No clear vaccination plans in Central America

On March 1, 2021, countries of the Americas began receiving vaccines through the COVAX Mechanism, an unprecedented global effort between CEPI, Gavi, Unicef, PAHO, and WHO to ensure equitable access to immunization throughout the world. 135,000 doses arrived in Nicaragua1 and 51,480 in El Salvador2 by Mid-March. Despite the vaccines, several countries and territories in Central America continue to report increasing COVID-19 transmission. According to World Health Organization (WHO) data through as of June 14, the following countries and territories in Central America have identified confirmed COVID-19 cases:

  • Panama: 387,842 cases*
  • Costa Rica: 339,900 cases*
  • Guatemala: 271,703 cases*
  • Honduras: 247,728 cases*
  • El Salvador: 75,351 cases*
  • Belize: 12,938 cases
  • Nicaragua: 7,662 cases* (17,813 cases reported by independent sources)

*As of June 14, disease activity in the country is also increasing.

Additional cases may be added to this list at any time as disease surveillance and testing continues. The trajectory of the disease is spreading faster than the vaccination and those susceptible are falling ill. The prognosis is dim.

“It is likely that the pandemic in Latin America will only end when herd immunity has been reached. Herd immunity happens when a virus cannot spread because it keeps encountering people who are protected against infection. Once a sufficient proportion of the population is no longer susceptible, any new outbreak peters out. Herd immunity can occur because people have had the disease, or because they have been vaccinated. Most estimates suggest that to acquire herd immunity, at least 70 percent of the population will need to be protected.” 

In most countries in Latin America, it is likely that too few people have been vaccinated to reach herd immunity. At the same time, new and more contagious variants are spreading.

Proposal: US Aid is a major tool for influence in the region

As in Nicaragua, structural readjustment imposed by the World Bank in 1995 encouraged restructuring of El Salvador’s healthcare system. These are the same healthcare systems that have fallen short during the pandemic. Central America depends on US controlled loans and programs such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the Inter-American bank and USAID that funded as much as 75% of the Salvadoran Ministry of Health’s pharmaceutical purchases in the 1980s to help the central government. 

By the early 1990’s, funding was being funneled toward connected local health promoters. Physicians at the Health Ministry resented this fact. By the time USAID funding was phased out in 1994, the health promoter program had been thoroughly undermined by physicians who saw it as dangerous and threatening. Program abuses like these show the patterns that keep these countries undeveloped. El Salvador and Nicaragua are currently in very different paths, while Bukele seeks to modernize and improve the economy and infrastructure, Ortega seeks to isolate Nicaragua to stay in power. This is one more example of how USAID can help or hurt these countries. Bukele seeks relief via cryptocurrencies that will eliminate the current banking system and make them independent, and Ortega is seeking to isolate Nicaragua and work with Russia, Venezuela and China to stay in power. How the United States responds to these countries’ needs will affect the entire American Hemisphere for many years to come.

By Ulysses Jaen

1  May 15 — Venezuela becomes the first Latin American country to approve for emergency use the single-dose Russian shot Sputnik Light. Five days later, Nicaragua approved it as well. On May 6, Russia’s regulator authorized the single-dose shot, which has the same component as what’s in the first dose of the two-shot Sputnik V. The Russian Direct Investment Fund, responsible for distributing Russian vaccines abroad, said in a statement that Sputnik Light’s efficacy rate was at 79.4 percent according to real-world data, though final-stage trial results are slated to come out in coming weeks. 

2 April 4  — El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele announces the country will receive 150,000 additional doses donated by China. This comes one week after the country received 1 million Sinovac doses, which will be administered on priority groups such as healthcare workers, educators, police, and military personnel. Given that the vaccine requires one shot, the delivery is enough to cover 15 percent of the country’s population. President Bukele tweeted that these shots are part of a 2-million-dose deal with the Chinese manufacturer. El Salvador switched diplomatic recognition from Taipei to Beijing in 2018.

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