Interest in central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) is on the rise in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC), with several countries making significant advancements in their adoption, according to IMF. While El Salvador gained attention for legalizing Bitcoin as a form of payment, other LAC nations are exploring CBDCs to enhance financial inclusion, lower cross-border remittance costs, and strengthen payment systems.
The Bahamas took the lead in 2020 by introducing the Sand Dollar, the world’s first CBDC. Following suit, the Eastern Caribbean Currency Union (ECCU) and Jamaica have also launched their own CBDCs. Meanwhile, Brazil is in the advanced Proof-of-Concept stage for its CBDC project, aiming to tokenize assets such as real estate, stocks, and commodities to increase liquidity and facilitate transfers.
In addition to CBDCs, crypto asset adoption in LAC has been noteworthy. Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, and Ecuador ranked among the top 20 countries globally in crypto asset adoption. These countries are attracted to the potential benefits offered by digital assets, including protection against macroeconomic uncertainties, improved financial inclusion for the unbanked, faster and cheaper payments, and increased competition.
However, the adoption of crypto assets also comes with challenges and risks, particularly for LAC countries with a history of macroeconomic instability, low institutional credibility, and extensive informal sectors. To address these risks, regulatory frameworks for crypto assets vary across LAC countries. While El Salvador has embraced Bitcoin as legal tender, other nations such as Argentina and the Dominican Republic have banned their use due to concerns about financial stability, tax evasion, corruption, and money laundering.
El Salvador’s experience with Bitcoin highlights the risks associated with unbacked crypto assets, as their value relies solely on supply and demand, leading to significant price volatility. Despite being declared legal tender, Bitcoin has not gained widespread acceptance as a medium of exchange in El Salvador. This indicates the need for effective regulation and oversight.
Stablecoins, another type of crypto asset, also present challenges. Meta’s pilot project aimed to enable domestic and cross-border payments without fees using its digital wallet, Novi. However, the project faced regulatory pushback and the risk of domestic currency substitution in Guatemala, leading to its discontinuation in 2022.
In response to the growing interest in CBDCs and crypto assets, most central banks in LAC are exploring the potential introduction of CBDCs. Retail CBDCs, designed for the general public, are viewed as a means to enhance payment systems, improve financial inclusion, and maintain monetary sovereignty. The ECCU and the Bahamas have already issued their own CBDCs, focusing on financial inclusion in remote areas and strengthening payment system resilience during crises. However, slow adoption and access disruptions have highlighted the importance of public awareness campaigns and robust infrastructure to promote CBDC usage.
To effectively manage the risks associated with crypto assets, the IMF recommends implementing appropriate policies that strike a balance between risk mitigation and technological innovation. Well-designed CBDCs have the potential to enhance payment system efficiency, resilience, and financial inclusion in LAC.
As LAC countries navigate the complexities of digital currencies, striking the right regulatory balance will be crucial. By fostering financial inclusion, improving payment systems, and addressing the drivers of crypto asset demand, LAC nations can leverage CBDCs and effectively regulate crypto assets to pave the way for a digital and inclusive financial future in the region.