A report by Mark Ellwood for The New York Post.
Forget “What do you do?” or “Where do you live?” There’s only one question on anyone’s lips in Puerto Rico right now.
“‘How long have you been here?’ — it’s the first thing anyone asks,” said Keiko Yoshino, 34, who previously worked in Washington, DC, city government before moving to the island in March. “For the longest time, I was the newbie, but my brother moved in with me four weeks ago.”
For Joel Comm, the answer is seven months — when the 57-year-old and his girlfriend ditched Colorado for the gated community of Palmas del Mar on Puerto Rico’s southeastern coast.
“It’s still a new experience for me, but when you get here, you’re ‘the new guy,’ ” Comm told The Post. “Two weeks later, someone else is here and all of a sudden, you’re not that guy anymore.”
Many of them are here thanks to a near-irresistible combo — of legal and financial incentives, great weather and a critical mass of cryptocurrency gurus — that has been transforming the island like a gold rush. The surge is helping reshape Puerto Rico into America’s homegrown answer to Dubai.
Call it Crypto Rico.
Both Comm and Yoshino came here for crypto gigs. He is a self-employed entrepreneur and podcast host, while she helps run the Puerto Rico Blockchain Trade Association, which hosted a week-long shindig in early December, timed for jetsetters to bounce down to the island after Art Basel Miami.
Among the boldfaced names on-island full-time are controversial YouTuber Logan Paul — who started his own NFT trading game, CryptoZoo and who is reportedly splashing out $55,000 per month on a home — and Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen. She admitted she’d decamped to the Enchanted Isle from Silicon Valley earlier this year and has she’s been living off crypto investments.
No one gets more attention, though, than Brock Pierce. The former child actor turned crypto evangelist, 41, is the de facto head of the crypto-championing movement here. He recently hosted Eric Adams on his jet when New York City’s mayor-elect jaunted down to check out the island for himself.
“What made Dubai into Dubai, or Singapore into Singapore, was, ultimately, the social, financial and intellectual capital there. Look at those places 50 years ago — they were basically nothing,” Pierce told the Post, rapid-fire in his enthusiasm. “But encouraging foreign investment into those regions, they made themselves into the smartest cities in the world.”
One way they could have scored such primo investments? Slashing taxes and red tape, a tactic that Puerto Rico has followed with gusto. Put simply, thanks to changes in the law, which are lumped together and known as Act 60, you can live there and keep two things: both your American passport and huge chunks of your earnings that Uncle Sam would otherwise grab.
Spend 183 days on-island each year, and you’re free of taxes on capital gains. If you operate a firm that exports its services from Puerto Rico — say, as a crypto consultant — you’ll pay a paltry 4 percent corporate tax rate. No wonder crypto types, already wary of centralized oversight and focused on cashing in fast and rich, have flocked here.
Pierce helped accelerate that move and now is like a one-man PR machine for Puerto Rico. The “Mighty Ducks” actor said he first fell in love with the island in 2014 and began plowing his crypto fortune — reportedly more than a billion dollars — into real estate and starting real-world businesses. He’s soon to open an art gallery — working name: Smart Gallery — in a building he owns in Old San Juan. Run by his wife, Crystal, it’ll sell both virtual and IRL artworks.
“I don’t meet everyone who moves down here, but I meet a lot [of them]. My name is pretty well known within the community,” he said, though he isn’t BFFs with Facebook exile Haugen, “We’re one degree of separation, and we’re connected to a lot of the same people. Her name is constantly brought up.”
The true turning point wasn’t Pierce’s arrival a pair of but near-simultaneous bad news/good news events: the devastation of Hurricane Maria and a bull run in Bitcoin, both of which happened toward the end of 2017. More than 140,000 locals left the island after the storm, which saw real estate prices plummet — creating an ideal opening for the virtually rich, flush with crypto, to swoop in and snap up a sunny home or two.
Now the island is in phase two of the Crypto Rico movement, again powered by a virtual bull market, according to Giovanni Mendez. At 34, the San Juan-based attorney said he’s the oldest person at the crypto-focused law firm he runs.
“If I had more space to hire people, I would,” he told The Post, noting that applications for Act 60-related benefits from new arrivals are double now what they were in 2017.
Among them is Theodore Agranat, 45. He grew up in Austria before dropping out of high school at 15 and becoming an entrepreneur. Agranat now runs an early-stage Blockchain investment fund called Alpha Crypto. After a trial stint in Puerto Rico early this year, he and his wife moved there in June with their kids, ages 18, 14 and 5, after selling their house in Massachusetts. They brought just a couple of suitcases.
“My five-year-old daughter can continue swimming, instead of crying when the local pools shut down. Almost every other day she tells me ‘This is the best day of my life,’” Agranat said.
But he’s also aware of controversies swirling around wealthy, mostly white people like him who are accused of a 21st-century return to colonialism via the back — or virtual — door.
“I identify more with the working class, hardworking person than with people who buy Lamborghinis and yachts,” Agranat said, noting that his own hardscrabble beginnings, as well as having a Korea-born and multiracial kids, likely offer him a broader perspective than some.
The tension between high-living expats surfing the crypto wave and many locals is understandable: 43 percent of Puerto Rico’s population lives in poverty versus a 13.4 percent national poverty rate for the US. Much of the pushback has been channeled through an anonymous, grassroots organization called #AbolishAct60 which rages on social media against cashed-up incomers. Representatives for the group did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Brock Pierce certainly champions a do-gooding cred — “I do not intend to take … a penny from the island when I leave, and any profits I make here will be reinvested in the island or given to charity,” he said — and most of his acolytes tout similar high-minded goals.
Attorney Mendez, for example, said that a net of 40,000 jobs has been created over the last decade as a result of the umbrella of incentives.
But, at least at the outset, this new community was white and bro-heavy; they even mulled nicknaming their efforts Puertopia, or “eternal boy playground,” a tin-eared appropriation of the local dialect. Now, though, crypto passes the taxi driver test: Is it something a cabbie starts gabbing about on a quick ride?
“Every Uber driver I ride with, 90 percent of them know about crypto,” said Yoshino, who leads seminars for the Puerto Rico Blockchain Trade Association. “And the guy who drove me to my first event pulled over the car and came to the class I was running.”
Digital marketing vet Juan Carlos Pedreira is from Puerto Rico and said the big uptick in uptake isn’t just fortune-hunting snowbirds. He calls out twentysomething locals, like a waiter at his fave spot in San Juan. “Every time I go in there he asks me about some new coin platform or wallet he’s into,” said Pedreira. “I told him, ‘The people you’re serving here are probably millionaires, but you have such knowledge that down the road, you could be better off than the people you’re serving.’”
Pedreira also stresses that the Crypto Rico scene isn’t just about digital currency like Bitcoin — catnip for high-risk investors — but also includes blockchain, which effectively offers unbreakable encryption that could be used for everything from product authenticity to voting without fear of fraud or other interference.
That’s the aspect of crypto that most interests 53-year-old Raul Moris, a social worker from Yauco on the south coast, who notes that the endemic corruption problems here have primed people to embrace such ideas. He has self-funded a program to help spark local interest in the crypto boom, using his graphic design skills to mock up pamphlets and translating the Anglo-heavy lingo into criollo-friendly Spanish.
“The idea is to educate people and give them access to what Mr. Brock has,” he said, framing Pierce and his cohort differently: Puerto Rico isn’t lucky to have them; they’re lucky to have discovered the Enchanted Isle. “We don’t seem them as colonists. They’re more like migrant refugees who are just looking for a place not to give the government the money they can use for other purposes.”