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How to Dictator-Proof Your Money

Cash is king, even if you are an activist leading a democratic movement against some of the world’s worst dictators. That’s why Bitcoin has quickly become the currency of choice for dissidents working everywhere.

By Alex Gladstein

April 2024

Human-rights activists around the world have a new tool: unstoppable electronic cash. From Russia to Cuba to Nigeria, advocacy groups and nonprofit organizations are increasingly adopting Bitcoin — an open-source, decentralized, censorship-resistant digital currency — to help keep their donations coming and their payrolls flowing, even when authoritarian regimes and state forces shut down their bank accounts.

In almost every dictatorship, the financial system is weaponized. Whether it be Erdogan in Turkey, the military regime in Zimbabwe, the Gnassingbé family in Togo, the Maduro junta in Venezuela, or Putin in Russia, a “first-choice” tool of autocrats when dealing with dissidents or political opponents is financial deplatforming. Protests are expensive, and if organizers can no longer receive donations or pay community members, democratic momentum can fizzle out. Within this context, Bitcoin’s rise as a dissident currency of choice starts to make sense.

Bitcoin’s spread as a currency of choice for activists accounts for a small portion of its global appeal as money for people living in antidemocratic countries or with access to nothing more than weak currencies. As of today, only about 1.2 billion people enjoy the benefit of a liberal democracy that protects property rights and free speech and a native reserve currency such as the dollar, euro, or yen. Everyone else — meaning more than 80 percent of humanity — lives either under tyranny or a weak currency that is prone to devaluation and very hard to use abroad.

In Gaza today, one of the only ways to get money into the besieged territory is with Bitcoin. In Cuba, a good way to short-circuit the Communist Party’s predatory dual-currency system is to send Bitcoin to family and friends, which they can freely trade for goods, services, or Cuba’s digital currency. In Ukraine, in the days after Vladimir Putin’s invasion in 2022, the banking system went down, but Bitcoin kept working, and groups like the Open Dialogue Foundation were able to save lives by using it to get equipment and aid where it needed to go. In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently frozen the bank accounts of the country’s main opposition party, and has frequently targeted the accounts of environmental groups, labor organizers, and abolitionists. But Bitcoin is beyond his grasp.

In Venezuela, where hyperinflation destroyed a once-proud and productive country, and created the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, Bitcoin played a key role in helping people escape with their wealth intact. Many like Mauricio Di Bartolomeo, who now runs a successful payments company in Canada, were able to emigrate with their wealth intact and accessible via a seed phrase of twelve words that could be written down, sent abroad, or memorized.

In Afghanistan, the humanitarian Roya Mahboob started paying her female employees in Bitcoin in 2013, as male relatives would seize cash and other digital-payment forms were sanctioned or not available. Bitcoin, she said, gave the girls and women that she worked with freedom and sovereignty. Since the fall of Kabul to the Taliban in 2021, Bitcoin remains a critical way for her to get money into Afghanistan to fund underground education for girls who have been out of school for more than two years. Dollars simply don’t work for this purpose, but Bitcoin does, with the teachers on the receiving end able to walk into town and swap the digital currency for cash at hawala brokers.

Bitcoin was invented in 2009, and only really began to find widespread global use after its price bubble in 2017. For many years, it didn’t make a lot of sense as an activist currency, simply because it was something few people would accept. But that has changed dramatically. Today, in nearly every place on earth, there is someone happy to buy Bitcoin in exchange for local currency — whether on Telegram, in person, on WhatsApp, or on some kind of exchange — making it an ideal technology for getting value to some of the toughest places in the world where the banking system can no longer safely meet activists’ needs.

In Hong Kong, activists send Bitcoin to colleagues inside the now-occupied city, who withdraw it at ATMs without needing to show ID, keeping out of the Chinese Communist Party’s watchful eye. In Belarus, democracy protesters keep their marches going and journalists keep their stories flowing with Bitcoin. In Zimbabwe, the military regime is trying to impose a new currency, causing chaos in exchange markets. But Satoshi Nakamoto’s invention keeps working, processing new transactions every ten minutes, without government interference.

Perhaps the most surprising case was revealed at the 2022 Bitcoin Conference in Miami by North Korean human-rights advocate Yeonmi Park. She explained to the audience that most people who escape from North Korea are vulnerable women, who are often sex-trafficked or enslaved without ID and without even speaking the local language. Christian missionaries are one of the only groups working to free them. She explained that it was hard to send dollars to help the pastors on the ground in northeastern China do this work, but with Bitcoin it was much easier. If Bitcoin can work on the North Korean border, or in Gaza, or in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, then it can work just about anywhere.

Some of these early adopters are gathering on the University of Virginia campus this weekend, as the Serbian-based Center for Applied NonViolent Action and Strategies (CANVAS) hosts its 5th People Power Academy, an event focusing on equipping the leaders of global democratic movements with better tactics and tools for revolutionary change.

CANVAS itself, founded by Srdja Popovic, has recently incorporated Bitcoin education into its global programs. The Freedom Academy — a project of the World Liberty Congress, founded by Garry Kasparov, Masih Alinejad, and Leopoldo López — is in its second year of Bitcoin education, having hosted trainings and events to help its community members in Africa, Europe, and Latin America use this new tool to overcome authoritarian controls and surveillance. They will be in attendance, as will Anna Chekhovich, the financial director of the Alexei Navalny–founded Anti-Corruption Foundation, which started using Bitcoin in 2016 as a reaction to the increasingly censorious and confiscatory Putin regime. Also present will be Félix Maradiaga, a Nicaraguan civil society leader who recently spoke at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, about the Ortega regime’s strategy of freezing the bank accounts of anyone it doesn’t like, ranging from activists to the Catholic Church.

The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) — where I serve as chief strategy officer — has run Bitcoin and human-rights programming since 2017. Each year, we add more, as we see governments around the world step up their attempts to fluster dissidents and opposition groups by cutting off their funding. HRF focuses on authoritarian regimes, where this behavior is unfortunately commonplace. But the world arguably saw the first major practical use of Bitcoin in 2011, when Julian Assange posted a Bitcoin address on the WikiLeaks Twitter page in response to the U.S.-led banking blockade of the whistleblower organization.

Two years later, HRF was contacted by activists on the frontlines of protests against the Viktor Yanukovych regime in Ukraine. They asked us, and our chairman Garry Kasparov, if we could help them with a Bitcoin fundraiser. Their bank accounts were closed or shut off from the outside world. As they titled their Reddit post about the fundraiser, “Only Bitcoin Can Reach Them.” To our surprise, the campaign was a success, and the protesters received the much-needed aid, despite the government’s efforts to keep them isolated. Over the years, we kept seeing cases like this pop up, eventually prompting us to run regular programming connecting Bitcoin developers and entrepreneurs with dissident leaders in authoritarian countries. In 2020, we launched the Bitcoin Development Fund to make grants to related open-source software and educational projects in authoritarian regimes. Since then, we have made more than a hundred grants across more than forty countries, deploying more than US$4 million.

To be clear, there are many challenges with using Bitcoin. The currency remains volatile day-to-day, prompting some activists to supplement Bitcoin use with “stablecoins,” such as Tether, that are pegged to the U.S. dollar but come with the downside of being centralized and freezable. Bitcoin transaction fees can be high (currently around $5 to $10 at the time of writing), so more and more Bitcoin apps are adding technology called the Lightning Network that can send Bitcoin transactions for pennies. Of course, true bad guys can also use Bitcoin — just as they can use encrypted messaging apps such as Signal — as it cannot discriminate and is money for anyone. The biggest obstacle remains education: Most activists still haven’t heard about Bitcoin being a human-rights tool, and it remains difficult for newcomers to sort through the vast sea of scams and Ponzi schemes in the cryptocurrency space to focus on Bitcoin. Given enough time, however, anyone can learn how to overcome these obstacles.

If you are running a human-rights group and your bank account hasn’t yet been frozen, flagged, or compromised, it likely will sooner rather than later. The human-rights defenders gathered at the People Power Academy in Charlottesville know that. The good news is, there’s a tool they can use to keep their work going, even if dictators want them to stop.

Alex Gladstein is chief strategy officer at the Human Rights Foundation and the author of Check Your Financial Privilege and Hidden Repression.


Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Image credit: Samir STR/NurPhoto via Getty Images




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