It’s early afternoon in the Puerto Rican city of Ponce and it’s hot. A few blocks from this city’s beautifully quaint and sleepy colonial-era main square, on a small stage that has been set up under the shade of a leafy guava tree, speakers are addressing a crowd in a back-and-forth mix of Spanish and English.
One man, a Mexican farmer, talks with passion and detail about how he has set up an organic avocado growing business on this Caribbean island that relies on alternative, biodynamic methods of agriculture. He is followed by another farmer, an earnest American, who talks about how soil quality is crucial for the success of a Puerto Rican medical-cannabis operation that he helped start before explaining how the business used blockchain technology to source funding.
Just like the island itself, it’s an overtly laid-back event and the crowd engage enthusiastically with the speakers and also enjoy the free pizzas, soft drinks and beers supplied by event organizer, Restart Puerto Rico.
This is the third such week-long Restart event – held to help bring outside investment, ideas and pragmatic optimism after the catastrophic damage caused by Hurricane Maria in September 2017 – and it’s the first one that has been run in the southern city of Ponce. And it’s all possible because of the support of one man.
Brock Pierce was a onetime Hollywood childhood movie star, was an early Bitcoin adopter, is proudly unconventional and, supposedly, is also exceedingly wealthy. The presentations under the guava tree have just finished and most of the event’s attendees have moved, like Pierce, to the cool of the pub. He sits sipping a beer, is affable, friendly and smily. He’s also scruffy, short in stature, and his baby-face looks make him look much younger than his 37 years, but he has the attention of just about everyone in the busy bar.
In February, a Forbes magazine piece estimated Brock Pierce’s wealth between US$700 million and $1 billion. In July, he made it on to the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, which dubbed him “the hippie king of cryptocurrency.” Pierce went on to to tell Rolling Stone that he was ”committed to giving away everything I have,” adding that he didn’t “need anything.”
Steve Bannon, US President Donald Trump’s onetime chief strategist, has described him as “one of the most colorful characters in the world, let alone crypto.” Bannon used to work for Pierce and in 2006 the pair persuaded Goldman Sachs and others to invest $60 million into the business they were running, Internet Gaming Entertainment, that sold virtual “goods” in games like World of Warcraft by teaching hundreds of people in China how to master the game play.
The business went bust after the threat of legal action from the game owners but they used the lessons learned on profiting from trading non-existent digital commodities. Pierce moved to Bitcoin and Bannon to the far-right US news website Breitbart and then the White House.
“When the history of this is written,” Bannon told Rolling Stone, “Brock is going to be looked at as more of a pioneer. Because right now they look at him as more of a freak show: They get caught up in the hat, the poncho and the dancing.”
In the bar Pierce isn’t dancing – but it is only 3pm and even in salsa-loving Puerto Rico, that’s still a tad too early for a boogie – but he is wearing the poncho and the hat. Pierce’s poncho is flowing and blue and is interwoven with intricate gold braid flecks. The hat is black, bashed and beaten up and wide-brimmed and is adorned with badges, feathers and what look like scrawled, faded chalk marks.
He also wears old sneakers, baggy white Thai fisherman pants, a torn black vest, a plethora of bangles, beads and braid, a large but barely concealed money pouch under his vest and what can only be various sized cryptocurrency wallets that dangle from his belt. It’s Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow meets face-paint-wearing “Tangled up in Blue “ Bob Dylan meets Obi-Wan Kenobi from Star Wars.
Pierce sits surrounded by an assorted gaggle of acquaintances – who are an odd mix of nerdy-looking techies, maverick money men and more than a few good time party-people – but by many others too.
Local artists sit squashed alongside young earnest Wall Street brokers and various American expats, who all vie for chairs around Pierce and he is constantly offered beer, cigarettes – both tobacco and “herbal” – and plates of food, which he either accepts or declines but always with grace and a laugh.
A Brock clone – who wears the same sort of hat and scruffy sneakers but who doesn’t have the youthful smile, the “don’t care” manner, nor probably the same money, as Pierce – slides on to a recently vacated chair, leans in close and whispers about some possible deal. “That’s not what I am about, man,” says Pierce still with a wide smile before pausing and saying, “What I want to do is I want to change, man.”
Pierce might have partly helped do that already. He has been front and center with the cryptocurrency story. He is the chairman of the Bitcoin Foundation and is also a co-founder of Blockchain Capital, Tether, and Mastercoin and Block.one, the Hong Kong / US blockchain startup that raised a record-breaking $4 billion this year on its public “crowd sale” for its EOS token launch.
He stepped down from Block.one after broadcaster John Oliver, calling him a “sleepy creepy cowboy from the future,” told his viewers, “Just Google ‘Brock Pierce Scandal,’ is all I’m saying.”
Such a search brings up news articles about lawsuits from 2000 that allege Pierce, when he was involved in the Digital Entertainment Network (DEN), an Internet TV platform for teenagers. The allegations are that Pierce and others from DEN pressured minors into sex, although DEN founder Marc Collins-Rector was the only one charged with any crime.
Pierce has always denied any wrongdoing, and a debate has since taken place on online forums over whether he was manipulator or indeed victim, as the alleged crimes did occur when Pierce himself was still a teenager.
At the Restart event in Puerto Rico, it’s pretty clear which way this debate has gone. One of the local Restart organizers says, “I really don’t care what people say about him, for Puerto Rico he has just been brilliant.”
Pierce now lives in Puerto Rico and has vowed to turn it into a “crypto utopia” – that many have called “Crypto Rico” – and to help the island battle back from the devastation that Hurricane Maria left in its wake. The organizer describes how Pierce has started multiple rejuvenation projects in the capital San Juan and is now working, after a successful small-scale pilot, on a project that would see the entire island powered by renewable energy. “He prefers to work behind the scenes,” he says. “He is very low key, he take this time but he makes things happen.”
As dusk starts to fall, Brock Pierce and his odd gang of crypto warriors move out of the bar and wind their way through the narrow streets of Ponce to head back over the mountains to San Juan. Locals recognize him – dressed like he is, he is hard to miss – and some point as he passes but he seemingly remains oblivious as he saunters along talking and laughing. And as the crypto gang leave, another group comes and starts to prepare the stage for an evening event.
The act is two famous Puerto Rican folk singers, and as dusk turns to night, chairs are set up in neat formal rows, and they are soon filled by the town’s older residents who sit under the stars and who clearly love the evening entertainment. That has all been paid for by Brock Pierce.