People use the first ATM designed to withdraw cash through the cryptocurrency app "Bitcoin Beach" in Tamanique, El Salvador on June 9, 2021. | Salvador Melendez/AP Photo
SAN SALVADOR—Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele wanted to make a big splash at the glitzy crypto gathering last month in Miami, unveiling details of a Bitcoin-themed citizenship-by-investment program and a “digital nomad” visa intended to lure wealthy foreigners to his country, according to two people briefed on his intentions.
Following an outburst of gang violence that created one of the worst single-day spikes in murders since the end of the country’s civil war in 1992, he remained here in the Salvadoran capital, where rifle-toting police officers stepped up their presence on the streets. Instead of basking in the international limelight, he was implementing a host of draconian measures that included prison time for members of the media who report statements from criminal groups.
The turn of events betrayed the disparity between the soaring promises made by Bukele of a tech-powered financial revolution and the realities of a small country hobbled by violence and poverty. The 40-year-old populist — whose representatives did not respond to repeated requests for comment over several weeks — has led an audacious effort to break free of the Western world’s financial system.