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Sensemaker: El Salvador

Sensemaker: El Salvador

What just happened

Long stories short

  • China pledged $31 million worth of aid to Afghanistan and described the new Taliban government as a “necessary step to restore order” in the country. Joe Biden said the US is a “long way off” from recognising the new government.
  • A fire at a makeshift hospital for Covid patients in North Macedonia killed at least ten people.
  • A machine to extract 400 tonnes of CO2 per year from ambient air, the biggest of its kind in the world, was switched on in Iceland.

El Salvador

“The three-year-old El Salvador International Airport is glassy and white,” Joan Didion wrote in her classic 1982 essay about the Central American country. The airport was, she said, “the visionary invention of a tourist industry in yet another republic where the leading natural cause of death is gastrointestinal infection”. The leading cause of death has changed – it is now homicide – but the country’s idea of development, as something that can be short-circuited, hasn’t.

El Salvador adopted Bitcoin, a cryptocurrency, as legal tender yesterday. “We must break the paradigms of the past,” President Nayib Bukele tweeted. “El Salvador has the right to advance to the first world.” Instead, the country regressed:

  • The price of Bitcoin fell to its lowest level in a month, dropping by 20 per cent at one point. According to one opposition politician the drop cost the country, one of the region’s poorest, $3 million.
  • Major platforms, including Apple, Huawei, and Google, weren’t hosting the government’s digital wallet – Chivo, slang for “cool.” Servers supporting Chivo couldn’t keep up with user registration, crashed, and had to be taken offline.
  • More than a thousand protestors set off fireworks and burned tyres outside the supreme court. They fear Bitcoin will cause financial instability and, because its transactions are spread across the Internet and outside national jurisdictions, will fuel illicit business.

They are right. Bukele, one of the most popular leaders in Central America, was elected on a promise to clean up graft. But he has taken control of almost all the country’s institutions, including the judiciary, and his allies are facing accusations of corruption by the US.

Over the course of the day, Bukele succeeded in pressuring Huawei and Apple to back Chivo. He then ordered the government to buy $7 million worth of Bitcoin to support its price, on top of the $20 million it had bought before yesterday’s launch.

Meanwhile, half of El Salvador’s population has no Internet access, many more only have weak connectivity, and incomes remain very low. Jose Herrera, who sells sweets and has trouble accessing a mobile phone, told journalists: “I’m going to continue suffering with or without bitcoin.”

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Statue politics
Richmond, Virginia – once the capital of the Confederacy – took down a statue of confederate general Robert E. Lee. The statue, which was 6.4 metres tall, stood on a 12 metre pedestal, and dated to 1890, became a focal point of protests after the death of George Floyd. Virginia governor Ralph Northam, who announced it would be taken down, called it “a monument to the Confederate insurrection”. It is telling that many confederate statues, like this one, went up not in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War but later, when the Ku Klux Klan gained power and states enacted laws that disenfranchised Black populations. The statue’s removal reflects a sea change in the demographics and politics of the South. The statue is now in a secure facility. Its former base, local officials said, will now be “reimagined”.

New things technology, science, engineering

Swale borough council in Kent, England, was testing the online planning submissions tool on its website when things went wrong. Staff members used five “dummy” planning decisions to test whether the tool was working. One was a sarcastic refusal to approve a desperate bid by the charity Happy Pants, an animal sanctuary: “your proposal is whack” and “no mate, proper whack”. Permission for the partial demolition of The Wheatsheaf pub was granted by “incy, wincy, spider”. The council is now looking to reverse the planning decisions. It first simply deleted them from its website, but was then advised that the decisions, although issued in error, are legally binding. They must be formally overturned, a process which may take months and will cost thousands of pounds. The council’s leader, Roger Truelove, said he is waiting for the outcome of a “proper investigation”.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

US Delta
Delta, the more transmissible Covid variant, drove a rapid increase in infections in parts of the US where vaccination rates were behind the national average: Arkansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Florida. In the latter state, Delta pushed cases to their highest-ever levels. The peak, at least, seems to have now passed. But deaths, a lagging indicator, remain at record-high levels and public health experts are worried that the return of unvaccinated schoolchildren to classrooms, cold weather in the North, and the Christmas holiday season could lead to yet another Delta wave. “I don’t know if we’ve peaked for all time,” Andrew Noymer, an epidemiologist at the University of California, Irvine, told the Wall Street Journal, “but the wave that was currently ongoing seems to have crested and is falling in some states but is rising in others”.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Priti ugly
British home secretary Priti Patel is training Border Force staff to use “turn-around” tactics on small boats carrying migrants across the Channel, redirecting them to France. French authorities rejected the plans. The country’s interior minister said that “safeguarding human lives at sea takes priority over considerations of nationality, status and migratory policy” and warned the UK that the tactic “would risk having a negative impact on our cooperation”. France said it had already agreed with the UK to double the number of its personnel on the Channel coast. A record 13,500 migrants crossed the Channel in small boats this year. Two hundred were prevented from crossing by France on Monday, when 742 reached the UK. The training is expected to be completed this month. If the Border Force uses it, Patel may face accusations that she is breaking an international law that gives everyone the right to at least apply to any country for asylum.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Theranos trial
The trial by jury of Elizabeth Holmes, who dropped out of Stanford University at age 19 to establish the blood testing start-up Theranos and build it to a $9 billion valuation, began yesterday. Theranos collapsed after its technology was revealed to be deeply flawed. According to prosecutors, Holmes knew it was flawed and misrepresented it to investors. She pleaded not guilty to 12 counts of wire fraud and conspiracy to commit wire fraud. If convicted, she will face up to 20 years in prison. The Theranos story has become a symbol of tech culture’s “fake it till you make it” hustle and Silicon Valley excess. But at the end of the day it’s a story as old as time: lying and cheating for money. “That’s a crime on Main Street,” said Robert Leach for the prosecution in his opening statement, “and it’s a crime in Silicon Valley.” 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Produced by Sophia Sun and edited by Giles Whittell.

Photographs by Getty Images