Crypto enthusiasts head into Lugano

The bitcoin people are banking on "Plan B" - But not everyone has money to spend
© CdT/Gabriele Putzu
Davide Illarietti
31.10.2022 03:01

Texans in cowboy hats, long-bearded Arabs, and hipsters with tinted glasses. All have identification badges with the words "Plan B", first and last name and title around their necks. And yet at the Convention Center in Lugano, it is hard to differentiate the crypto millionaires from simple nerds who are looking to make a fortune or are already broke. The guy with the B on his yellow-and-red T-shirt seated on the steps of Villa Ciani falls into the second category, or at least currently. He wished to remain anonymous and we''ll call him "Satoshi" in honor of the legendary creator of bitcoins - Satoshi Namamoto - whose name he has stamped across his back, as if he were a soccer player. He is from Schaffhausen, 30 years old, and unemployed. No one invited him to the cryptocurrency festival organized Friday and Saturday by the City of Lugano, but he came anyway because, he says, he wanted "to be where things happen."


So, what happened at the Palacongressi? Since "Plan B" was first launched, the city has risen to international prominence. The cryptocurrency enthusiasts in the community have reacted enthusiastically to City Hall's announcement to create a center of expertise ("hub") and more so to the news of a 103-million-franc investment by the Tether platform. The money so far has not been seen. On the other hand, some 1,700 people-organizers calculate-arrived on Lake Ceresio to attend a packed conference program.


Prominent guests included Max Keiser, an American TV presenter and former face of Russia Today: disgraced lately for his pro-Kremlin positions (he called Putin "the world's greatest statesman" on Twitter), he is a major popularizer of the "religion " of bitcoins, of which he describes himself on social media as "high priest." Then there is Giancarlo Devasini, the former Turin-based plastic surgeon and founder of Tether: he is a celebrity in the industry, partly because of his troubles with the U.S. justice system. Last year he had to pay 18 million to the New York prosecutor's office in an out-of-court settlement over alleged conflicts of interest. This has caused some discomfort at the Civic Palace, and perhaps that is why the 58-year-old keeps a low profile, does not go on stage and in front of reporters is hostile ("you are all ugly beasts") and sidesteps.


Texan Jimmy Song is more blessed: author of classic books on cryptocurrencies ("The little bitcoin book" and "Thank God for Bitcoin" among others) he walks around the Palacongressi with a cowboy hat and says of Lugano that "it's a beautiful place, it has many benefits even if it's a bit expensive." The small bazaar established at the entrance to the Palacongressi sells plan B branded clothes: a pair of socks with the bitcoin symbol is priced at 10 francs. "Still, it's not as expensive as Zug," Song teases.


Zug vs. Lugano

The differences between Zug and Lugano are a common topic of conversation for the crypto enthusiasts assembled at Ciani. "Zug's problem is not so much the climate from the atmospheric point of view," Jouni Keranen, 47, a Finnish entrepreneur who has been transplanted to central Switzerland for a few years, attempts to explain. He wears a pair of huge 3D glasses, to follow the virtual projection "Ithaka" about the life of Julian Assange (one of the organized installations at Villa Ciani). "Zug is lacking a sense of community, which is very much alive here in Lugano. The idea of establishing a hub that brings people like us together under one roof is fantastic, that's why I'm here."


Taxes have nothing to do with it ensures Keranen, who plans to relocate to Lugano from Zug (an online gaming site and a community dedicated to digital art). "It's about atmosphere and creativity," he says. It's no coincidence that he just bought a painting from artist and former soccer player Boris Dondé, whose gallery on Via Nassa brought a series of works devoted to bitcoin to the forum: Scrooge McDuck surrounded by cryptocurrencies and beautiful girls is the recurring subject. Symbol of greed? "No," the artist swears, "of carefree and zest for life. Paintings start from 6 000 francs, the Finnish entrepreneur promptly put his on sale again on the Nft web: price 16 000 francs.


Arnab Naskar, 32-year-old Indian founder of a digital investment platform (Stokr), is also fond of art. "Technology is art," he says. "It is creativity, and it needs a favorable environment." He just bought a chicken burger from the nearby McDonald's paying in bitcoin - CHF 6 and is quite literally thrilled. " In other crypto valley there are only people in a suit and tie and letterbox companies. This, on the other hand, is real life."


From McDonald's to the future

Some 40 businesses so far have introduced bitcoin payment along the Ceresio. In addition to McDonald's, pizzerias, a pharmacy, various boutiques and stores have joined. The municipality plans to raise this number to 1,000 by the end of the year. According to Economic Development Division head Pietro Poretti, the Lugano event " was definitely a success in that it brought people from all over the world to Lugano and enormous visibility for the city."


The commercial spin-off, however, is another matter. For "bitcoiners," now is not the time to spend: the value of the cryptocurrency has been at an all-time low for years, plummeting 70 percent during 2022 and showing no signs of rising again. Satoshi Sciaffusan is proof of this. He routinely converted all the savings he earned from his last job (a clerk at a casino in Canton Zurich, he quit his job a year ago) into bitcoin and watched it plummet with nothing he could do. "When I started buying cryptocurrency, I wanted to be rich, " he recounts. " Now I live differently, more philosophically." He still has some money saved up ("70 percent less than a year ago") and is adamant about not converting it into francs because, as evidenced by the T-shirt he wears, cryptos are like a football faith to him. "I would not advise others to take the same risks I do, I do it because I believe in it, " he says before heading to the buffet set up in a mega-tent in the center of the park. It is free and crowded. If bitcoins really are the future - Satoshi is convinced - it's best to save them for better times.