Ron Paul at the Bitcoin Convention (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

April 17, 2023   5 mins

When a charging bull statue was unveiled at a Miami cryptocurrency conference last April, it was supposed to be a futuristic homage to the Wall Street beast. which represents financial might. The unnerving tribute, based on Transformers robots and paid for by brokerage firm Tradestation, featured ironic laser eyes — alluding to a meme that is popular among heavily online crypto-enthusiasts. But on closer inspection, it was missing something: it’s manhood.

The absence was especially surprising to Furio Tedeschi, the artist who designed the bull. He had submitted his design to Tradestation with “huge, mechanical balls” — only for the firm to neuter it. “Prosperity and wealth shouldn’t have any gender,” a company official explained. It might seem odd that a symbol of the overwhelmingly masculine crypto community — it is estimated that 94% of crypto accounts are owned by men — has been castrated in the name of diversity. But for a product built on faith, appearances matter.

That the price of various cryptocurrencies, including Bitcoin, began a spectacular decline only weeks after the bull was neutered is the kind of irony that crypto-types would otherwise revel in. But as the realities of the “crypto winter” set in, there wasn’t much joy to be had in a community known for its in-joke culture. The collapse of a number of prominent crypto firms, such as FTX, last November saw crypto crashing to lows that hadn’t been seen for years. The price of Bitcoin dropped to $16,000, only a year after it reached a record high of $69,000, seeming to herald the end of a Bitcoin boom.

These rapid fluctuations in crypto prices were keenly felt in the neutered bull’s new home. While Miami might not yet attract as many crypto transactions in dollar volume as San Francisco and New York City — though it is fast gaining on them — it is one of crypto’s undisputed cultural centres, and has the fastest-growing number of tech jobs in the country. Describing the city as one that moves from “from hustle to hustle”, Miami mayor Francis Suarez has repeatedly praised crypto, once saying that it offers a “tsunami of opportunity”. Natural disasters aren’t usually a metaphor leaders reach for when promoting their cities. But in Miami’s high-risk, high-reward culture, where boom and bust cycles are part of doing business, his phrase feels appropriate.

Suarez has opted to surf the tsunami, using traditional methods to promote crypto business, including a favourable ecosystem of tax breaks and friendly legislation, combined with an attractive lifestyle for workers. These perks have created considerable momentum for firms to move there: investment in Miami-based crypto start-ups jumped from $6 million in 2020 to $745 million just one year later. There has also been a steady stream of Bitcoin parties and conventions, encouraging potential investors to associate crypto with a lavish lifestyle. Indeed, some have had a little too much fun with crypto: last month, the US Securities and Exchange Commission froze $100 million in assets of Miami-based crypto company BKCoin and one of its co-founders, Kevin Kang. Describing it as a Ponzi scheme, in which investor funds were mixed with Kang’s, the SEC alleges that $371,000 alone was spent on sporting tickets, holidays and an apartment in New York City.

There are plenty of reputable crypto enthusiasts who argue that the currency is a hedge against inflation, and a bulwark against corrupt governments. The blockchain ledgers on which it is stored are said to be incorruptible, and the complex mathematical equations required to unlock the coins constrain supply. But these digital assets also undoubtedly attract those looking to launder fiat currency from dubious sources. One report last year found that $8.6 billion was laundered through cryptocurrency in 2021, up by 30% from the previous year. It’s the currency of choice from Mexican drug cartels, who pump about $25 million through it annually, to Russian mafia figures, one of whom was extradited from Greece to the United States last year, charged with a $4 billion laundering scheme.

Miami has, inevitably, seen a number of high profile crypto-related arrests. In January, Anatoly Legkodymov — a Russian national who legally resides in China, operated the crypto exchange Bitzlato out of Hong Kong, and did his work in Miami — was arrested by Florida authorities for running a $700 million “haven” for funds “intended for use in criminal activity”. Months earlier, a respected 76-year-old University of Miami professor of global crime networks was jailed for money laundering. He had been working with Alex Saab, a Colombian national and “super facilitator” for sanctioned countries looking to do business in global markets, who used Venezuelan cryptocurrency Petro Gold for many of the transactions.

How Miami has come to attract these sorts of international figures is largely a matter of geography and demographics. The city’s culture is inextricably tied to its location in the centre of the Americas. It is closer to many Caribbean nations than to Washington DC, and acts as a transport hub for those travelling between North and South America. It also has one of the highest immigrant populations in the country, whose experiences have probably influenced the city’s general attitude to authority. Cuban émigrés have been arriving steadily since the United States first began overthrowing their governments in the Thirties, and the ascension of Castro in 1959 meant that many new Floridians had a decidedly anti-government bent. In the Seventies and Eighties, while the rest of the world was struggling through oil shock recessions, a flood of cocaine money saw Miami transformed from a tourist outpost into a major metropolis, and a place where prosperity often has shady roots. In the past decade, Miami has become an attractive alternative to London for highly upwardly mobile Russian and Chinese citizens looking for somewhere to make a reliable investment.

But some turn to crypto out of necessity. Of US cities with over 100,000 people, Miami has the largest “unbanked” population; around one in five residents doesn’t have a bank account. This is more likely due to the enormous number of undocumented workers in the city, who live from cash payment to cash payment, than to money-laundering kingpins. And when many traditional money exchanges closed their doors during the pandemic, migrant workers turned to crypto to send back home.

This is where two very different perceptions of crypto intersect: while some Miamians sell it to achieve the good life, others use it to keep themselves and their overseas families alive. And even if some of the world’s shadiest elements are attracted to crypto, so are some of its most influential: giant Silicon Valley VC firm Andreessen Horowitz continues to plump for it; in its recently-released 2023 report, it called for “crypto computers, not crypto casinos”.

Next month, Miami hosts Bitcoin 2023, the annual convention that last year introduced the neutered crypto bull to the world. It has been suggested that the currency, in the intervening 12 months, could become entirely worthless — one website has tracked 473 instances of prominent people falsely declaring it dead. But those who aren’t following Bitcoin’s daily fluctuations may not have noticed that it has quietly risen almost two-thirds since last Christmas. Its association with shady money and macho risk-taking is a symptom of economic malaise rather than a sign that crypto itself is the rot. Crypto is not going anywhere.

Elle Hardy is a freelance journalist who’s reported from North Korea and the former Soviet Union. She is the author of Beyond Belief: How Pentecostal Christianity Is Taking Over the World.