The launch of El Salvador’s national Bitcoin wallet, referred to as Chivo, has been a flop, with the majority of users having ditched it already, according to a paper published last month by economists at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The study is among the first in-depth nongovernmental efforts to quantify the success of the country’s national cryptocurrency push.
The study by the nonprofit, based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, surveyed 1,800 households in cities and rural areas. Where Chivo may have had minor unexpected success is in banking the unbanked. Researchers say that those who continue using the Chivo Wallet are using it to hold and transfer dollars, El Salvador’s official currency, similar to how one uses any digital wallet or bank. Some respondents told the researchers that they use the app as a debit card for dollars, with 20% of Chivo users saying they now spend less cash.
“There is no experiment where a currency was introduced with such strong incentives and still failed,” Fernando Álvarez, an economist at the University of Chicago and one of the study’s authors, told Rest of World.
Chivo was rolled out in September 2021, when President Nayib Bukele made El Salvador the first country in the world to make Bitcoin legal tender. The app, which stores and exchanges Bitcoin, save Salvadorans fees on the $6 billion sent to the country from abroad each year and boost the economy, he said.
Things have not gone to plan, though. Chivo’s launch was plagued with functionality and security issues. Though around half of the Salvadorans surveyed have downloaded Chivo to date, with 40% of those downloads happening in September 2021, around 61% of those have abandoned it after withdrawing the $30 dollar sign-up incentive, the National Bureau of Economic Research found. Only 1.6% of all remittances were received in bitcoins via digital wallets in February 2022, according to El Salvador’s Central Bank.
Meanwhile, many living in tourist hot spots on the Pacific coast, where Bitcoin usage is highest, have transitioned to other crypto wallets, such as the privately developed Bitcoin Beach.
“Don’t even talk to me about Chivo,” said Carolina Reyes, who sells snacks to tourists in the surf village of El Palmarcito. “It’s not secure, so I’m not going near it.” She said that she is one of at least 1,000 people who logged into the app in September last year, only to find that their identity had been used to steal the $30 dollar sign-up bonus.
“There is no experiment where a currency was introduced with such strong incentives and still failed.”
Chivo download numbers have been negligible in 2022, suggesting that the push has run out of steam. Some of those who have stuck with the application are using it for transactions unrelated to Bitcoin. The median active user does not send or receive a single Bitcoin payment a month nor make any Chivo ATM withdrawals, the survey found.
The fact that Chivo saw mass adoption but most abandoned it after withdrawing the bonus suggests that Bitcoin in its current form “is not such an effective means of payment,” Álvarez said. Few of Chivo’s transactions are in commercial or key use cases, the study revealed. According to Álvarez, the average user did not see an incentive to keep using Bitcoin rather than dollars.
The findings suggest that millions of dollars in taxpayer money may have been spent on creating an app that serves more as a rudimentary digital wallet than a novel technology that could help transform El Salvador into a regional tech hub, said Óscar Salguero, a software engineer and cryptocurrency enthusiast from San Salvador. Chivo is a “very expensive Square or Cash App clone used by an incredibly reduced and niche user base,” he told Rest of World.
But even holding dollars in Chivo may also not be as safe as it seems. On April 27, local media outlet El Faro revealed that users are not actually holding U.S. dollars in their Chivo wallet but rather stable-dollar coins that could be backed by either the Salvadoran government or a private company. Experts told El Faro that it is concerning that Chivo is being used as a large bank without having to comply with the usual financial regulations.
“This is deception on the part of the government, because it has never told citizens [that they hold digital tokens instead of Bitcoin or dollars],” Ricardo Castaneda, senior economist for El Salvador and Honduras at The Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI), told Rest of World. “Additionally, if there is massive use of the Chivo Wallet and at some point people want to withdraw their money, they may find that this money does not exist.”