By Brian Ellsworth
ATAPIRIRE, Venezuela (Reuters) - To hear Venezuela's leftist President Nicolas Maduro tell it, this remote hamlet of 1,300 souls is perched on the cutting edge of an innovation in cryptocurrency.
Located in an isolated savanna in the centre of the country, Atapirire is the only town in an area the government says is brimming with 5 billion barrels of petroleum. Venezuela has pledged those reserves as backing for a digital currency dubbed the "petro," which Maduro launched in February. This month he vowed it would be the cornerstone of a recovery plan for the crisis-stricken nation.
But Atapirire residents say they have seen no efforts by the government to tap those reserves. And they have little confidence that their struggling village has a front-row seat to a revolution in finance.
"There is no sign of that petro here," said homemaker Igdalia Diaz. She launched into a diatribe about her town's crumbling school, pitted roads, frequent blackouts and perpetually hungry citizens.
It turns out that Venezuela's petro is hard to spot almost anywhere. Over a period of four months, Reuters spoke with a dozen experts on cryptocurrencies and oil-field valuation, travelled to the site of the pledged oil reserves and scoured the coin's digital transaction records in an effort to learn more.
The hunt turned up little evidence of a thriving petro trade. The coin is not sold on any major cryptocurrency exchange. No shops are known to accept it.
The few buyers Reuters could locate were those who had posted about their experiences on online cryptocurrency forums. None would identify themselves. One complained of being "scammed." Another told Reuters he had received his tokens without problem; he blamed U.S. sanctions against Venezuela and "awful press" for hurting the petro's debut.
Senior government officials have given contradictory statements. Maduro says petro sales have already raised $3.3 billion and that the coin is being used to pay for imports. But Hugbel Roa, a cabinet minister involved in the project, told Reuters on Friday that the technology behind the coin is still in development and that "nobody has been able to make use of the petro ... nor have any resources been received."
The Superintendence of Cryptoassets, the government agency that oversees the petro, is a mystery. Reuters recently visited the Finance Ministry, where the Superintendence is supposed to be housed, but was informed by a receptionist that it "does not yet have a physical presence here."
The Superintendence's website is not functioning. Its president, Joselit Ramirez, did not respond to messages on his personal social media accounts. Phone calls to the Industry Ministry, which oversees the agency, went unanswered.
The Information Ministry did not reply to emails seeking comment.
Maduro added to the confusion this month by announcing that salaries, pensions and the exchange rate for Venezuela's decimated currency, the bolivar, are now pegged to the petro. That move stirred bewilderment on Venezuela's streets and among economists and cryptocurrency experts who say the petro-bolivar tether is unworkable.
"There is no way to link prices or exchange rates to a token that doesn't trade, precisely because there is no way to know what it actually sells for," said Alejandro Machado, a Venezuelan computer scientist and cryptocurrency consultant who has closely followed the petro.
The chaos speaks to the desperation and disorganization that are gripping Maduro's government as Venezuela melts down.
The petro was supposed to help his administration weather the hyperinflation that has rendered the bolivar all but worthless. He vowed that a cryptocurrency, which allows financial operations to be carried out anonymously, would enable Venezuela to undermine U.S. financial sanctions and raise hard currency.
The government pegged the value of the petro to the price of one barrel of Venezuelan oil - currently around $66 - and promised to back it with crude reserves located in a 380-square-kilometer area (147 square miles) surrounding Atapirire. U.S. President Donald Trump in March banned Americans from buying or using the petro.
Analysts are sceptical of Maduro's claims that the petro has already brought in billions in hard currency. They say digital records associated with the initial coin offering, or ICO, do not provide enough information to determine how much, if anything, has actually been raised.
"This certainly doesn't look like a typical ICO, given the low level of transaction activity," said Tom Robinson, chief data officer and co-founder of Elliptic, a London-based blockchain data company. "We have found no evidence that anyone has been issued a petro, nor of it being actively traded on any exchange."
A visit by Reuters to the area around Atapirire, meanwhile, showed little oil-industry activity. The only visible rigs were small and aging machines installed years ago. Several were abandoned and covered in weeds.
In an opinion piece posted August 19 on Aporrea, an online Venezuelan commentary and analysis site, former Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez estimated it would take at least $20 billion in investment to tap the reserves, money that Venezuela's troubled state-owned oil company PDVSA does not have.
"The petro is being set at an arbitrary value, which only exists in the government's imagination," Ramirez wrote. He oversaw the nation's oil industry for a decade under late President Hugo Chavez. Ramirez is now in exile in an undisclosed location after being accused of corruption by the Venezuelan government, allegations he denies.
PDVSA did not respond to an email seeking comment.
'WE GOT SCAMMED'
In contrast to buyers of well-known cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin or Ethereum, holders of petros are difficult to find.
One gathering place is an online cryptocurrency forum called Bitcointalk, where enthusiasts began posting messages in early 2018.
Some initial posts were bullish. But that optimism soured as time went on. Several participants groused about a lack of information and delays in getting their coins. One complained of being unable to transfer or sell the tokens.
"As of now yes we got scammed, time will tell if it was a good investment or not," a forum participant identified as cryptoviagra wrote on June 25.
Another buyer, the only one to respond to questions from Reuters, said via social-media messages that his experience purchasing petros "worked pretty well overall." He blamed the U.S. ban for depressing petro sales, along with what he considered negative media coverage. He asked that his name be withheld because he feared "persecution" by the U.S. government, adding that "I don't consider Reuters to be a honest news organisation."
Reuters could not independently confirm whether any forum participants had invested in the petro.
Cryptocurrencies gained popularity over the last decade, led by proponents who said they would lower financial transaction costs, give citizens alternatives to commercial banks and protect them from inflation induced by central-bank policies.
Transactions are validated by a network of computers and recorded on a public ledger called a blockchain. Individual operations are available for anyone to see on the internet, but the identities of those involved are kept secret. The operations are secured by cryptography, the computerized encoding and decoding of data.
Fevered purchases of crypto assets in 2017 drove Bitcoin's price to nearly $20,000. Its success fuelled a wave of coin offerings by other startups, including scams that raised millions of dollars before being broken up by authorities.
Cryptocurrency issuers seeking to provide transparency in fundraising use blockchain ledgers to show each individual purchase of the new currency. That gives potential investors a sense of how much money is flowing in, and provides a relative gauge of demand.
The Venezuelan government, in contrast, has not provided a purchase registry.
The petro's "white paper," a public document that describes the conditions of the offer to prospective buyers, says the principal platform for the coin is NEM - a decentralized blockchain network promoted by a Singapore-based non-profit. Owners of NEM accounts are anonymous, but can disclose their identities in the description of their coins if they wish.
In March, a NEM account claiming to be operated by the Venezuelan government issued 82.4 million tokens as part of an ICO associated with a digital coin described as the petro. Those appeared to correspond to a set of "preliminary" coins described in the white paper that buyers could later swap for petros once the ICO was complete.
Around 2,300 of those tokens were transferred to 200 anonymous accounts in small quantities in early May, NEM records show.
That time frame is consistent with comments posted by participants on the Bitcointalk forum who said they were buying petros. If sold at the price set by Maduro based on oil prices at the time, the sale of those tokens could have raised about $150,000, according to Reuters' calculations.
In April, another anonymous NEM account issued a different set of tokens that it described as part of a separate phase of the petro aimed at major investors.
That account in June transferred a total of around 13 million tokens to about a dozen anonymous accounts, NEM records show. The sale of those tokens could have raised about $850 million at official prices. But there is no way to verify that those were sales, and no large investors have admitted to taking a position in the petro.
Roa, the higher education minister, oversees a state agency called the Venezuelan Blockchain Observatory. He appeared to validate analysts' suspicions that the petro, at present, doesn't exist as a functioning currency.
Reuters spoke with him briefly on the sidelines of a petro event in Caracas last week. Roa described the NEM transactions as "early models," adding that Venezuela was now working on its own blockchain technology. He said buyers have made "reservations" to purchase petros, but that no coins have been released.
What is clear is that the petro does not trade on any major cryptocurrency exchange.
Hong Kong-based Bitfinex, one of the world's largest exchanges by volume, in March said it never intended to list the petro due to its "limited utility." It officially banned the token from its platform following U.S. sanctions.
Three other major exchanges - San Francisco-based Coinbase, Seattle-based Bittrex and San Francisco-based Kraken - declined to comment or did not respond to questions as to why they have not listed the petro.
Maduro on April 26 announced that 16 exchanges had been "certified" to trade the petro, adding "they begin operating as of today." Most are little-known in the crypto world.
Reuters could not locate seven of the exchanges, which had no internet presence. Seven others did not respond to requests for comment. Italcambio, an established Venezuelan currency exchange that Maduro said would trade the coin, does not manage or sell petros, its president Carlos Dorado said in an emailed response to Reuters.
The only exchange that has publicly discussed plans to list the petro is India's Coinsecure.
In an interview with Reuters earlier this month, CEO Mohit Kalra said Coinsecure within two months would provide Venezuela with an exchange for trading petros, along with technology to operate it, and that Venezuela would pay royalties for its use.
Kalra did not answer calls seeking additional information.
'WHAT IS A PETRO?'
Oil is the heart of Venezuela's economy. In choosing to back its petro with petroleum, the country has joined a small but growing number of cryptocurrency issuers linking the value of their tokens to physical commodities.
The Royal Mint, which produces coins for the United Kingdom, in 2017 announced a gold-backed digital coin called RMG. Other tokens have emerged that are backed by diamonds.
The big difference is those cryptocurrencies are tied to physical assets that can be readily traded. In contrast, Maduro promised that the petro would be backed by oil reserves that still lie deep underground near Atapirire in a bloc known as Ayacucho I.
The government says the area holds 5.3 billion barrels, citing an "independent international certification agency." PDVSA did not answer an email seeking details.
No matter how much oil it holds, the area lacks crucial infrastructure to get it out of the ground, including roads, pipelines and power generation, said Francisco Monaldi, a native of Venezuela who now teaches Latin American energy policy at Rice University in Houston.
"There is no investment plan for this area and no reason to think it would be developed before other fields with better conditions," he said.
Just locating the bloc requires significant effort.
PDVSA employees who agreed to take a reporter there confused it with a different bloc. Reuters had to map Ayacucho I with GPS software using coordinates published by the government as part of the petro's creation.
Meanwhile in Atapirire, residents say they have been forgotten.
A fish farm that used to provide employment now lies abandoned. The town's clinic has no doctor or functioning ambulance. Many spend hours waiting along the dusty road for Chinese-made buses that serve as the only public transit into El Tigre, an important oil hub that lies 60 kilometers (37 miles) to the north.
Teacher Rosa Alvarez said that around half of her first-grade class had stopped showing up because they were hungry and the school no longer provides state-sponsored meals.
She says government officials have ignored her complaints. But in May the Education Ministry laid out a new mandate: Teach students about the virtues of Venezuela's new cryptocurrency.
Standing before a white board earlier this year as her students giggled and chatted, Alvarez said she was stumped.
"How am I going to explain that to them if nobody will tell me what is a petro?" she said. "How do I buy a petro? With what?"
(Additional reporting by Anna Irrera in New York, Nidhi Verma in New Delhi and Maria Ramirez in Altagracia del Caris; Editing by Marla Dickerson)