Joel Padrón needed money and he needed it fast. It was 2015 and the financial crisis in Venezuela had reached alarming levels. Joel was a computer buff, so he decided to use his knowledge to make money. He never imagined where it would lead him.
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[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
Ok, so. What comes to mind when I say “cryptocurrency?”
I’m not an expert and I’m guessing you’re not either. So, let’s see. Before this story, what came to mind was: drugs, the buying and selling of weapons, the Dark Web (a phrase I never understood), trafficking, pornography??
I don’t know.
Something I definitely don’t associate with cryptocurrencies is saving the Venezuelan economy.
This is Nicolás Maduro in late 2017.
[Nicolás Maduro]: I’ve studied this topic in depth, and I want to announce that Venezuela is going to implement a new cryptocurrency system drawing from the petroleum reserves. Venezuela is going to create a cryptocurrency, the Petro coin, the Petro…
[Daniel]: What is a president doing announcing the creation of a cryptocurrency?
According to president Maduro, this new currency would serve to…
[Nicolás Maduro]: to advance in terms of monetary sovereignty, carry out financial transactions, and overcome the financial blockade. This will allow us to advance toward new forms of international finance for the economic and social development of the country.
[Daniel]: A few details: the Venezuelan crisis, the one we all know about, has resulted in hyper hyperinflation. The situation The International Monetary Fund predicts that Venezuela will have an inflation rate of 10 million percent because of the country’s fiscal deficit and the loss of confidence in the national currency, the bolivar soberano…
[Mariana Zúñiga, reporter]: When you have bolivares with, with this inflation, you feel as if you have salt and water in your hands, as if every day the bill is melting in your hands and losing its value until it’s worth nothing.
[Daniel]: This is Mariana Zúñiga. She’s a Venezuelan journalist, and she covers the economic and social crisis in her country.
[Mariana]: It’s not uncommon to find 100 bolivar bills or small bills lying in the street. In fact, a little while ago I saw some people using it as confetti. They threw bills up in the air like “oh, yeah, party” because that, that bill specifically won’t buy you anything anymore.
[Daniel]: So, that’s the context. Maduro introduced the Petro as a possible solution to this… We’ll come back to the Petro. But for now, you can’t help but notice the irony. Years before this announcement, getting involved in cryptocurrency could put a Venezuelan in prison.
Mariana spoke with one of them…
[Joel Augusto Padrón Celis]: My name is Joel Augusto Padrón Celis. I’m 33 years old, and I was born in Valencia, in the state of Carabobo, Venezuela.
[Mariana]: And ever since he was little…
[Joel]: I, I was very passionate about computers.
[Daniel]: He was so fascinated by them, he remembers his first model.
[Joel]: Imagine it. The first computer I had was a 486, which is a processor from the late ‘80s, early ‘90s. And later when the first Windows came out, Windows 3.1, then, “Look, how do you use a mouse? What is this?” I mean, I went got home from school and spent hours on the computer playing for a while, and learning, and trying things, and that was how I got my fondness for technology.
[Daniel]: He grew up obsessed with computers, and ultimately, he did something with them. He studied computer science.
[Mariana]: And in 2008, he opens Express Delivery, which was a service like a courier service to bring merchandise from the US to Venezuela.
[Joel]: Imagine a, a DHL, a UPS that was a delivery store where people would go to pick up packages. Venezuelans would buy things on Amazon or on eBay or any of those sites: phones, TVs, clothes, shoes, perfumes, anything you could think of, and they would send it to our offices in Miami, and we would bring it here to Venezuela.
[Daniel]: His business was very successful between 2010 and 2014. There was high demand for foreign products in the country. They did business every day with all kinds of products… until one day, in early 2015…
[Mariana]: A customer sent a request for a specialized computer through his import business.
[Joel]: And I delivered it personally, and he was the one to tell me: “Look, do you know what this is?” And I told him: “It looks like a computer, it seems to be a server.” So that was when he explained: “No, it’s a bitcoin mine.”
[Daniel]: Ok… Since this is unknown territory for many… before we continue Joel’s story, we have to stop for a moment and explain what cryptocurrency is exactly. So, pay attention.
The first cryptocurrency was created in 2009, and it was called Bitcoin. No one knows who invented it, but its creator —we don’t if they’re a person, or a collective, or an institution— is known by the name Satoshi Nakamoto. Since then, over 2,000 cryptocurrencies have been created in the whole world.
[Mariana]: So, well, a cryptocurrency is a decentralized digital currency.
[Daniel]: Currency because…
[Mariana]: Like the dollar, or the bolivar, or the euro, you can use it to buy things.
[Daniel]: Digital because…
[Mariana]: It only exists on the internet —it’s not tangible, you can’t touch it.
[Daniel]: And decentralized because…
[Mariana]: It doesn’t depend on the government or the banks to be regulated. In other words, the system works without needing an administrator.
[Daniel]: And well, one of the things that made this currency so attractive at first was what it meant to use it. Using a system of value outside of the control of the authorities is a kind of protest. Joel was very curious about what his customer was telling him…
[Mariana]: He started explaining to him what Bitcoin was about, what these computers could do.
[Daniel]: And what that machine could do was allow him to become a cryptocurrency miner. It sounds like science fiction, right? I’ll explain: Let’s imagine there’s a gigantic mountain called “Mt. Bitcoin” where all of the bitcoins in the world are. To get them, just like gold, you need miners. But since it’s a digital currency, the miners aren’t going to be in a physical place, but rather, they use a super-powerful computer that’s specially designed for this purpose.
[Mariana]: It’s like a kind of black shoe box that produces a lot of heat and also makes a lot of noise, like a vacuum cleaner. Something like brrmmmmm all the time. And it needs to be connected to the Internet and electricity all the time, 24 hours a day…
[Daniel]: They’re like processors that are designed to use all the energy possible to create this kind of currency that, remember, is…
[Mariana]: Decentralized because it doesn’t depend on the government or the banks to be regulated. In other words, the system works without needing an administrator.
[Daniel]: But since there’s no single administrator, in order for trading bitcoins not to be total chaos, all of the transactions that are done with this currency are recorded in kind of public digital ledger… like the savings books we use at the bank or the account statements on our credit cards.
[Mariana]: And so, the different miners all over the world act as the administrators of this ledger…
[Daniel]: Because, let’s see, every time someone sends bitcoins to someone else, it generates an algorithm in the system. Like a key…
[Mariana]: So the miners, with their super powerful computers, compete with one another to try to find the key and use it to validate the transaction. If they manage to do it, they earn a fraction of that bitcoin as payment… This is the process called “mining.”
[Daniel]: So, the computers dig, dig, dig, to verify that everything is legitimate —that the account has the necessary funds, that the person receiving the cryptocurrency exists—and they send the results to the other miners so they can approve it and avoid fraud.
[Mariana]: And once it’s approved, it creates a block or a record that is added to that public ledger we were talking about before, and the transaction becomes official. And even though the information from the transaction is public for the whole community to see, the names of the owners are withheld, and they only know the account numbers of the people sending and receiving bitcoins… The process takes about 10 minutes, more or less, and for the users, it’s as easy as sending an email… It’s not users who are working, the computers do all the hard work of deciphering the encrypted key.
[Daniel]: So, let’s see, I’m going to summarize because this is not easy to understand: When I send someone a bitcoin, it creates an algorithm that needs to be solved for the transfer to be valid… The miners, with their super-powerful computers, solve that algorithm and verify that the information is legitimate: how much money I have, that the receiving account exists. If everything checks out, and the community confirms the information, the transaction is published on the ledger, and it’s official. Also, the miner who solved the algorithm and validated my transfer gets a fraction of the bitcoin as payment.
[Mariana]: This works almost the same as when we go buy something at the supermarket with our credit card… We swipe the card, the bank sees if we have the money, approves the purchase and the supermarket receives the payment. Only with bitcoins, instead of the bank validating the funds and approving the transaction, it’s the miner community that does it. And a miner could be you, Daniel, from your house, or me, or anyone with the necessary equipment.
[Daniel]: Ok… understood, right? So let’s get back to Joel, the techie who’s fascinated by computers. It’s early 2015. While he was learning about the machines he needed to buy, the advantages of this currency, the infrastructure that he needs to mine… the economic crisis in Venezuela was getting more and more serious.
You could feel it all over, little by little spreading through all the businesses, every family, every home…
[Joel]: Things were hard to get in Venezuela, even basic things like food, things from the supermarket. You would go to the store, and there’s no detergent, there’s no shampoo. There’s no sugar. There’s no rice.
[Mariana]: You had to go on the black market to get those kinds of things.
[Joel]: You had to buy them from certain people who had bodegas, little informal spaces for selling food at double, triple the price.
[Daniel]: That’s because the government banned exchange into dollars.
[Mariana]: At that time, the government was also limiting people’s access to dollars. The black market becomes much more important…
[Daniel]: And well, with this whole situation, Joel’s import business also started to suffer.
[Joel]: Of course, by that time, my business wasn’t as profitable as before. It starts out as a kind of downturn because, of course, since people don’t have dollars, they can’t buy things, and the flow of merchandise slows down substantially.
[Daniel]: It went down by 70%.
[Mariana]: So, he says, “Ok, I’m going to use my savings from all the time that’s been good for me to buy computers and mine bitcoins.
[Joel]: I bought my first miner, and I set it up in my office at Express Delivery, where I took care of clients. But in the back, the part that’s a little more separated, that’s where I put my first miner.
[Daniel]: Joel turned on the machine —which cost him $600 dollars, more or less— downloaded the programs he needed to mine bitcoins and left it there, connected to the internet 24 hours a day. And just one month later, he was surprised to see…
[Joel]: It gave me the amount of bitcoins I had calculated because it was generating about $120, $150 dollars a month, or something like that. So, the first month goes by, it generates that money for me, and I see that yeah, it’s working.
[Mariana]: When he started to see the results he said, “I’m going to buy more miners,” and he made a big investment.
[Joel]: I got nine machines. Nine miners in total cost about, I’d say, $20,000 dollars between the cost of the miners and the cost of the power supply. All of the infrastructure that I made, because I had to make an industrial extractor, a kind of vent to pull out hot air. I had to buy an electric board, all that.
[Mariana]: Well, what was clearly most exciting for Joel was this currency’s tendency to increase in value.
[Daniel]: Especially compared to traditional currencies like the Dollar or the Euro. Those values depend on central governments. Unlike bitcoin, which, it bears repeating, is decentralized.
[Joel]: So, evidently, one bitcoin cost $200 dollars in 2015 and right now it cost $7,000 almost $8,000 dollars.
[Mariana]: That was early 2018. It was expected to keep increasing, but that didn’t happen. Actually, by the end of the year it started to decrease. And this is due, in part, to the fact that the trade of cryptocurrencies is highly speculative and the market isn’t regulated.
[Daniel]: That’s why in 2017, for example, the value of the currency went from $974 dollars to $20,000 dollars in the course of a year. And well, right when the currency was increasing more and more in value, Joel started mining. And with time, other miners in Venezuela were creating what are known as “farms.” They’re sheds with 50 or 100 machines working 24 hours a day, non-stop. In other words, Joel’s nine computers were nothing compared to what these farms were doing.
And at that level, the infrastructure is different.
[Joel]: They have industrial air extractors to be able to suck out hot air onto the sidewalk, outside of the shed. Some have refrigeration systems or industrial air conditioning to be able to maintain the right temperature…
[Daniel]: The energy consumption is impressive. A single machine consumes as much energy as two refrigerators and a TV, connected all day long.
[Mariana]: Which is quite a bit of electricity. The thing is that in Venezuela, the electricity is 80% subsidized by the government.
[Joel]: The attractive thing about mining in Venezuela is due precisely to the fact that the cost of electricity in Venezuela is very low.
[Daniel]: We’re talking about people paying three dollars a month for electricity, with the air conditioning going in their houses all day. That subsidy explains why Venezuela is known as one of the countries where it is most lucrative to mine bitcoin in the world.
Joel knew more and more people who were mining: his friends, customers at his store. And it was very profitable. They could make $200 to $300 dollars extra a month, which is a lot of money in Venezuela. And on top of that, Bitcoin was going up in value with time. It was a good business.
[Joel]: Who isn’t excited about making extra money in a month? And what you don’t spend, you can make back in five or six months, and then, what you have left is profit.
[Mariana]: Joel, he feels at ease because, despite the crisis, he’s making money. He’s recovering. In six months he had already recovered around $7,000 dollars. He was on track to recover his $20,000 dollars.
[Daniel]: Everything was going fine for Joel until March 16th, 2016, when he got a visit he wasn’t expecting.
[Mariana]: Two workers come from Corpoelec, which is the Venezuelan Electrical Company, and they ask to inspect the high rate of energy consumption, because outside of his office there was an electricity meter that, well, according to them, was reading very high. So, Joel lets them in, and shows them his machines. He doesn’t tell them they’re for mining bitcoins. He tells them they’re servers that use a lot of electricity. And the men leave.
[Daniel]: But a half hour later, they come back.
[Joel]: They come back, one of the employees that had come before, with two other men who had a uniform: shirt, pants… And they come in, and one of them identifies himself as a commissioner from Sebin.
[Mariana]: Sebin is the political police and the Intelligence Service of the Venezuelan government.
[Joel]: And he tells me they’re going to come in because they need to check this electricity consumption. And well, when he arrives, my heart starts to race a little. Why is Sebin here?
[Mariana]: They ask to see the machines. They ask him for the receipts so they can see where he had gotten the machines and if they had entered the country legally or illegally.
[Joel]: I didn’t understand what was happening at first. I got scared but at the same time I didn’t understand why this was happening.
[Mariana]: Joel shows them the receipts. They tell him the receipts aren’t valid.
[Daniel]: Because, according what the head of Sebin at the time said in an interview, they didn’t have the respective import manifests…
[Mariana]: So they decide to confiscate the machines, and they take him to a station, under arrest.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.
[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante, I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, Joel was arrested by Sebin, the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service. They took him to a station about 15 minutes away from Valencia in a municipality called Ngua-Ngua. There they interrogated him. They asked him about his machines, about Bitcoin, if he was selling dollars on the black market. And, according to Joel, they told him that…
[Joel]: That’s a crime against the country. But I tried to refute it, and what they did was shut me up and talk louder. So, in the end, I said it doesn’t make any sense to answer. I’m going to shut up, and that’s it.
[Daniel]: At the end of the interrogation, they told him that he would stay locked up in the cell at Sebin.
[Joel]: And there, I even started to tear up and everything… out of desperation, of course. I never thought I, a person who doesn’t even run red lights, would go to jail. So, yes I was in despair, in a lot of anguish, a lot of sadness, and I felt powerless because they were arresting me over something that isn’t illegal.
[Daniel]: He’s right, mining bitcoins feely in Venezuela wasn’t illegal; the term cryptocurrency didn’t even exist in the law. Almost no one knew what they were. And that’s why the crimes they accused him of initially were…
[Mariana]: Stealing electricity, money laundering, and criminal association. Joel says they accused him of other kinds of crimes so they could get him on something…
[Daniel]: Because in order to accuse him of criminal association, they had to demonstrate that he had met with more than one person to organize a crime, which Joel hadn’t done…
As for stealing electricity: in Venezuela, you can go to prison for two to six years. And when they arrested Joel, there was a big electricity crisis…
[Joel]: I mean, electricity would go out in houses almost every day, for about 4 to 6 hours. So, they zeroed in on that to build the case against us.
[Daniel]: In other words, according to Joel, the officials at Sebin were argued that he and the other miners were partially responsible for the country’s electrical crisis because they were stealing energy. But Joel wasn’t doing that. Yes, his electricity consumption was high, but he always had…
[Joel]: Usage within the legal limits which are permitted by an office in this part of Valencia.
[Daniel]: But there was another very serious charge. And it had to do with a Chavéz era law, from 2010.
Basically, from that time on, the government had a monopoly on the buying and selling of dollars. The idea was to regulate the value of the bolivar.
And fines for breaking this law are serious. It could equal double the amount traded. Or if it was more than $20,000 dollars, prison. Two to six years. But…
[Mariana]: With Bitcoin being a different kind of currency that you can later exchange for dollars, the problem is that it exists in that legal grey area because supposedly it’s not a legal currency either It’s not recognized. It’s not the dollar. It’s not… It’s not… It’s not the euro. It’s not the peso.
[Daniel]: In other words, if Joel was mining and exchanging that money for dollars, that would be breaking the law. But, due to the nature of cryptocurrencies, that couldn’t be proven. The transactions, remember, are anonymous. Either way, Joel was facing up to 12 years in prison.
And despite the fact that Joel explained that a bitcoin isn’t a dollar, and he wasn’t working as a money changer, they didn’t listen to him and held him at the Sebin offices.
Once he was there, Joel met another miner who had been arrested for the same thing, on the same day. Both of them thought they weren’t going to be there long, and they would give a receipt in a different format or pay a fine and be set free.
[Mariana]: They tell Joel he would be held for a period of 24, 48 hours, and he said to himself, well, I’m going to get out of this soon. This can’t be so long. So he’s taken to the courthouse. He goes to this hearing with his lawyer.
[Joel]: I mean, the prosecutor was rather cutting, honestly. He also gave the same speech about it being a crime against the country and how these miners are taking money away from the state and stealing electricity and how this was contraband and we don’t pay necessary taxes or fees.
[Daniel]: At the end of the hearing, the judge dismissed the charges of money laundering and criminal association because they couldn’t prove that that was the case. But she upheld the charge of stealing electricity, and with that, Joel was sent to jail at Sebin. They told him he had to wait 45 days for a new hearing in which the case would be resolved. And while Joel waited…
[Mariana]: And in that moment, a very long legal process starts. Joel starts to lose hope with each passing day. And at the same time, people mining bitcoins are being arrested and detained all over the country.
[Joel]: Police, Sebin inspectors, the National Guard.
[Mariana]: It appeared to be a national- level raid that had started in the city of Valencia.
[Joel]: My friends who I knew, who were mining, shut down those machines, closed shop, went into hiding, disappeared from social media.
[Daniel]: A few days later, an academic who was presenting talks about Bitcoin and who had an exchange page —an online exchange house— was also arrested. There were already three people locked up for working with this cryptocurrency.
[Mariana]: The cell was rather… It was small and narrow. There were 13 people in addition to them.
[Joel]: It was ugly, as you can imagine, in the sense that you slept on a mattress that was practically the same as sleeping on the floor. It wasn’t a very hygienic place. Let’s say it was… it was hot, it was all of it, and of course, I was locked in with people who had been arrested for drugs, for murder, for theft.
[Daniel]: In that cell, Joel and the other bitcoiners became friends and started talking about their situation. They realized that none of them really understood the changes they were being held under…
Days went by, then weeks, then months, and three were still there. Joel had already been there for three months, much longer than the 45 days they had initially told him because his hearing had been postponed several times. He was already desperate to get out, and his lawyer gave him some options.
[Joel]: He told me: “Look, here in Venezuela, the stuff with the hearings and the trials and that kind of thing aren’t like in the movies, where you have a good lawyer, or a good case, or a good testimony, and you go free. That doesn’t work here Joel.”
[Daniel]: He told him that if he had money pay, he could go free the next day, but Joel said he didn’t have any.
[Joel]: So he told me: “Ok, you can plead guilty. You know it’s your first offense, you don’t have a criminal record. They’re minor charges. Plead guilty.”
[Daniel]: For energy theft, Joel could go to prison for up to 6 years, but, if he plead guilty, he could get out and go to court every 30 days. Initially, Joel wasn’t convinced of the idea of pleading guilty: he was innocent, and he wanted to leave that way. But when he heard that the other people in the cell had been there for several months, others almost a year and a half waiting for a trial, he thought that maybe pleading guilty was the best option he had to be released.
So, when the day of his trial finally came, almost four months after having been put in jail, Joel went and plead guilty, and he was allowed to leave on conditional release. His computers were still seized.
After an experience like that, of being locked in a cell for several months, it’s very hard to go back to a normal life as if nothing had happened… Of course, Joel was happy to be free, that his waiting and his imprisonment were finally over, but…
[Joel]: Of course, if they throw you in jail for cryptocurrencies, we’re going to step away from that a little.
[Daniel]: And that’s what he did. If someone called him to ask about cryptocurrencies or if his business imported miners, he said no, he didn’t have anything to do with it, he didn’t know anything about it.
[Joel]: But you know, I don’t know if they were from Sebin or from the same circle, who knows… my customers, I don’t know. But I was really scared. I was really scared because of everything that had happened. No wonder.
[Daniel]: He was in a state of total paranoia, and well, on top of that, Joel…
[Mariana]: Had spent too much money on legal fees. His business was also on the verge of disappearing because of the crisis.
[Joel]: They were difficult months because, apart from being worried or having a bad time.
[Daniel]: Joel spent nearly six months doing freelance work, helping manage social media from his home computer. With what he earned, he had enough money to pay for basic expenses, but there came a point when that wasn’t enough…
[Mariana]: Joel started to get the itch again, because of money issues, and he started helping other miners.
[Joel]: And in January 2017, I took a bit of a risk and I started working a tiny bit, secretly and only with people I trust.
[Mariana]: And, well, he does it very cautiously, especially at first, because he’s afraid of being arrested again.
[Joel]: It was a risky situation, because you know, in Venezuela, any situation can be risky. So, I said: “Ok, I need to take a small risk because I need to make back all of the money or at least some of the money I lost because of what happened to me.”
[Daniel]: Joel is talking about the 20,000 dollars he invested in the machines, the money for the lawyers, and from the customers in his business.
Given Joel’s situation, he was more surprised when at the end of 2017…
[Nicolas Maduro]: Venezuela announces the creation of its cryptocurrency.
[Daniel]: President Maduro made that announcement we mentioned at the start…
[Nicolas Maduro]: It will be called the Petro.
[Daniel]: The Petro. The Petro itself is a paradox: a digital currency that depends upon and is regulated by a central government. Something totally contrary to the main objective of cryptocurrencies: decentralization, that the users are in control.
For Joel, there was something even more absurd.
[Joel]: So, their premise is: “No, with the petro you’ll be able to perform international transaction, pay suppliers, save, everything. With a currency that was created for Venezuelans, in Venezuela, backed by the government.” That is their premise. I mean, that the petro is going to replace the dollar. But, I mean, that’s completely absurd, and even ironic, because you can’t buy petros with bolivares, you would have to buy it with dollars. And the US dollar is imperialist and capitalist, and criminal and everything. So, wow, pff, it’s absurd, it’s stupid.
[Daniel]: Despite how absurd it seemed to Joel, with the announcement of the Petro, he saw an opportunity.
[Joel]: What I was interested in was what else was being said about the legalization of mining. The legalization of cryptocurrencies.
[Daniel]: And, mostly, he was interested in something the superintendent of the Venezuelan cryptocurrency, Carlos Vargas, said.
[Carlos Vargas]: It’s true that there have been seizures that we at the superintendency considers illegal. It’s true that there has been harassment on the part of unscrupulous officials who have benefited or continue to benefit from the extortion of this sector in Venezuela.
[Daniel]: He was talking about what happened to Joel and many miners in the country, who had been arrested and had their machines confiscated. And about that last part, the superintendent had this to say…
[Carlos Vargas]: This equipment will be recovered. This equipment will be returned because this equipment can’t be there in anonymity and secrecy surely producing for such and such person.
[Daniel]: In other words, miners like Joel could get their machines back.
[Joel]: That would be fabulous since the machines aren’t worth as much as they were before because those machines depreciate in value, they lose value with time, but at least they may be worth something. They may be worth, I don’t know, 4000, 5000 dollars, which today is better than zero. So, we’re going to do it.
[Mariana]: So, in March of 2018 Joel and his lawyer go to the Attorney General’s Office to recover his machines. He makes an official request and leaves.
[Joel]: The lawyer tells me it could take some time, and we have to give them a few days to look over things, and we’ll see what their answer is.
[Daniel]: But that same day…
[Joel]: I see that at seven at night of that same day, Thursday, there’s some noise outside of my house, and they start loudly knocking on my door, I feel it, hard, hard, hard, and I ask who it is.
[Mariana]: And they tell him they’re commissioners from Sebin.
[Joel]: Automatically, when they say that, everything comes back to me, and my stomach turns, my throat was like this. I was in shock, and it was like: “Wow. My God, what’s happening here?”m and they were knocking on my door. Rather hard. I mean, I thought it could just fall over any minute.
[Mariana]: And well, he opened the door…
[Joel]: The “inspectors, ”I’m saying inspectors in quotes because they never identified themselves, you know? They told me they were from Sebin, but they never showed me a card or anything like that. And they came in, and one of them grabbed me, and the other one did a quick search of the kitchen and all that. I don’t know if they were looking for miners or seeing if I was with another person. And so, without mincing words at all… Of course, I was saying, “But what happened… What did I do… What is going on? I didn’t do anything wrong…”
[Mariana]: They grabbed him forcefully, and they took him from the apartment.
[Joel]: And of course, this didn’t seem like an arrest anymore… it seemed like a kidnapping, and it really was.
[Mariana]: They cover his eyes. They drove about 45 minutes and left him in a dark room.
[Joel]: And there, I was crying, I was already, I was already in really bad shape, and they left me locked up in that room there. Two things went through my mind: either it was a kidnapping to ask me for money. An express kidnapping or something to ask or my family for money, I don’t know. Either it was that, or it had to do with my going to the Attorney General’s Office that morning to ask for the miners. Something like, I don’t know, I kicked the hornet’s nest… like I did something I shouldn’t have done, like I should have kept my mouth shut, and I couldn’t be demanding that document to get my machines back.
[Daniel]: I should explain that Joel had his suspicions about what had happened with his machines when they didn’t return them. When Joel left the Sebin jail in 2016, he checked his email and saw that he had gotten an automated message right after he spent two months in jails.
[Joel]: I got a notification that, hey look, the machines were connected. And afterwards, they were reconfigured so I couldn’t get any more. So, they connected those machines and put them to work.
[Daniel]: In other words, according to Joel, someone inside Sebin was using his machines to produce bitcoins, and when he turned in the documents to get them back, he got some agent in trouble. And well, even though he doesn’t have proof, Joel says that could explain his arrest.
The morning after they took him from his house, they brought him somewhere else, where the agents interrogated him about his application to have his machines returned.
[Mariana]: They asked him if he had spoken with the media or published it anywhere.
[Joel]: I told them no, no, no. I talked with my lawyer, and that was it. They told me that I don’t need to be going there, that those machines don’t belong to me anymore, that they’re not my problem, and there’s no reason to rock the boat because I could regret it.
[Daniel]: Then they asked him if he knew anyone else who was mining bitcoins, and when Joel said no…
[Joel]: Then they got pretty brutal, they shoved me out of the chair and kicked me. It got violent. I held firm saying I don’t know anyone, I don’t know anyone else who’s mining. The people he knew who were mining left the country or fell off the map completely. So, I told them: “Well, if you want I won’t ask for the machines from the Attorney General anymore, you can have them. Great.”
[Mariana]: They grabbed him and locked him in a room where it was really hot, and they didn’t give him any food, they didn’t give him any water either. According to Joel, about 48 hours passed until they came for him again, they put him in a car and left him by the the side of the road about 45 minutes from Valencia.
[Daniel]: Joel didn’t want to go back to his house, so he went to a friend’s place. Once he was there, he called his mom to tell her he was alright and let her know what had happened. His mom called Joel’s lawyer. Joel decided to stay at his friend’s house for a while, in case they went looking for him again. And a few days later, two patrol cars from the CICPC showed up at his mom’s house.
[Joel]: They practically forced their way in looking for me.
[Daniel]: And they summon him to appear before the police. Joel was terrified, it was like reliving everything that had happened: being locked in the cell, the powerlessness of seeing himself faced against a broken justice system. So, Joel had one option left to get out of this: his brother who lived in Miami had bought him a plane ticket so he could go visit him for a few months while things calmed down for him in Venezuela. And when he found himself with this new summons from the Attorney General, Joel…
[Joel]: I spoke with my mom the next day and said: “Mom, I’m going to the US, and I’m not coming back.”
[Daniel]: Joel never imagined living outside of Venezuela. It wasn’t his plan, despite the crisis. But now he lives with his brother in Miami and works as an Uber driver. He applied for political asylum in the US, and he’s waiting for his application to be processed. He does not plan on returning to his country.
Toward the end of 2018, President Nicolás Maduro announced that petros could be purchased, and it could be done with convertible currencies —like the yuan, the Russian ruble, or the euro— of they could be exchanged for bitcoins. According to him, you could pay for certain goods and services like gasoline and passports in Venezuelan embassies all over the world. You could buy homes or rent rooms. And even though anyone could buy petros, the mining could only be done by the Venezuelan government.
But the system has had its issues from the start: you could only buy petros with dollars or euros at the counters of the Venezuelan Superintendency of Cryptoassets and Related Activities, or on the web portal with bitcoins. On top of that, the petro is non-transferable, and if someone gets one, they can’t extract it from their account, it was in the digital wallet managed by the government.
The government invited the miners to register, a kind of de facto legalization to regulate mining in the country. But with an asterisk. The people who didn’t register, and I’m quoting the superintendent of cryptocurrency: ”Would remain on the margin of the law, and will be declared as illegal mining.”
Mariana Zúñiga is a freelance journalist, and covers the social and economic crisis in Venezuela. Thank you to Luis Trelles for his help on the episode.
This episode was produced by Lisette Arévalo, and edited by Camila Segura, Luis Fernando Vargas and me. Mixing and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri and Rémy Lozano. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Victoria Estrada, Miranda Mazariegos, Diana Morales, Patrick Moeseley, Ana Prieto, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, David Trujillo, and Elsa Liliana Ulloa and Silvia Viñas. Carolina Guerrero is our CEO.
Radio Ambulante is produced and mixed on Hindenburg PRO.
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Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Thanks for listening.