In Venezuela, home to some of the worst hyperinflation since the Weimar Republic, a Big Mac costs about half a month’s wages. Or rather, it did, until a bread shortage forced the burger off the menu. The annual inflation rate is expected to hit 1,600 percent. Life resembles an old newsreel: long lines, empty shelves, cashiers weighing stacks of bills.
To survive, thousands of Venezuelans have taken to minería bitcoin—mining bitcoin, the cryptocurrency. Lend computer processing power to the blockchain (the bitcoin network’s immense, decentralized ledger) and you will be rewarded with bitcoin. To contribute more data-crunching power, and earn more bitcoin, people operate racks of specialized computers known as “miners.” Whether a mining operation is profitable hinges on two main factors: bitcoin’s market value—which has hit record highs this year—and the price of electricity, needed to run the powerful hardware.
Electricity, it so happens, is one thing most Venezuelans can afford: Under the socialist regime of President Nicolás Maduro, power is so heavily subsidized that it is practically free. A person running several bitcoin miners can clear $500 a month. That’s a small fortune in Venezuela today, enough to feed a family of four and purchase vital goods—baby diapers, say, or insulin—online. (Most web retailers don’t ship directly to Venezuela, but some Florida-based delivery services do.)