Thousands of Salvadorans protested Wednesday against the government’s introduction of bitcoin as legal tender in the impoverished country as well as against judicial reforms that critics say threaten democracy.
Last week, El Salvador became the first country to use the cryptocurrency as legal tender, alongside the US dollar. The move by President Nayib Bukele was met with a mix of curiosity and concern.
On the day that Central America marks the bicentennial of its independence from Spanish rule, protesters burnt a bitcoin automatic teller machine in San Salvador, one of about 200 ATMs that have been installed throughout the country as part of the reform.
Protesters on a central square in the capital held aloft placards denouncing a “dictatorship” and signs reading “Respect the Constitution,” and “No to bitcoin.”
Joining the protests were judges, in suits and ties, who came out to demonstrate against a law passed recently by the Bukele-controlled legislature. The law calls for laying off all judges over 60 or those with more than 30 years of service, a move that will affect about a third of all serving judges.
“We came out on the streets because we are headed in the direction of authoritarianism… of dictatorship,” said Esli Carrillo, 48-year-old judge.
The law, said another protester, judge Luciano Lovato, 55, threatens judicial independence and “the rule of law that we have worked so hard for.”
– Republic ‘in peril’ –
The protesters also oppose a recent ruling by the Supreme Court, populated by judges appointed by Bukele, that gives the president the right to seek a second successive term despite a constitutional limit of a single term.
“The Republic is in peril, that is why we are demanding respect for the independence of powers,” said Zaira Navas, an activist with the rights group Cristosal.
Peasants, workers and union activists also turned out to protest.
“We march because we don’t want that bitcoin law because it does not favor us,” said Natalia Belloso, 41, who wore a white T-shirt with the emblem “No to bitcoin.” “It (the currency) is very volatile.”
Experts and regulators have highlighted concerns about the cryptocurrency’s notorious volatility, its potential impact on price inflation in a country with high poverty and unemployment, and the lack of protection for users.
Elected in 2019, Bukele enjoys broad support in El Salvador over his promises to fight organized crime and improve security in the violence-wracked country, and his allies now hold a large majority in parliament.
But Bukele has long been accused of authoritarian tendencies.