TOKYO – He's known as "Bitcoin Jesus" in the world of cyber-currencies. Though he can't promise you heaven, he is offering a haven: a condo in the Caribbean that comes with a new passport and almost zero taxes.
Meet Roger Ver, ex-U.S. citizen, ex-convict, millionaire investor, self-described libertarian and founder of Passports for Bitcoin.com.
The ever-expanding universe of what you can buy with bitcoins includes a hotel stay in Rome, a kimono in Tokyo, and cable TV in the United States. Ver, a pioneer investor in bitcoin start-ups, now says he can add citizenship to the list.
Specifically, that's the right to live in the Federation of St. Kitts and Nevis, two sun-kissed islands a three-hour flight from Miami. St. Kitts has run an invest-and-become-a-citizen program since 1984, making it the oldest of its kind, says the country's website.
Plunk down $400,000 for real estate and you get a passport that allows visa-free travel to 120 countries. There are no taxes on personal income or capital gains and the islands' restrictive disclosure laws offer shelter from outside scrutiny, according to the Tax Justice Network, a think tank that studies secrecy jurisdictions.
Ver's website, in English, Russian and Chinese, offers a way to purchase a piece of that paradise with bitcoins. He says it will help people who are hemmed in by government restrictions on cash transactions.
"I'm going to China next month to explain to people that bitcoin is the easiest way to pay for things outside the country," Ver said during a meeting this month at the plush 51st-floor lounge of Tokyo's Roppongi Hills urban center.
A trim 35-year-old with a crew cut, in a black polo shirt and slacks, Ver looked a little like an electronics salesman at a big-box retailer. Still, a crowd of followers hung on his every word. A former derivatives trader at Goldman Sachs Group, a hacker and a professional boxer were all there to pitch ideas or talk bitcoin with the master.
Ver got rich investing in bitcoin early and has become a regular speaker at industry conferences. He's provided seed funds for a dozen prominent start-ups including Kraken, an exchange where people buy and sell the digital currency, and Blockchain, an online wallet used to store it.
Bitcoin was invented in 2008 as a currency that could be used without government oversight. That's drawn people who want to trade illicit goods like drugs and guns. It's also gained support from libertarians like Peter Thiel, the billionaire co-founder of PayPal who plans to build an artificial island where people can do whatever they want. Ver's passport site, his latest venture, is a scaled-down version of that ideal.
"St. Kitts' government is much more libertarian compared with the U.S.," Ver said. "It's not even close. So all these early bitcoin adopters, of course if they have the means, they'd rather be a citizen of St. Kitts."
However they pay to get in, people usually seek out countries like St. Kitts so they can evade taxes, says John Christensen, director of the Tax Justice Network. The U.S. Treasury Department last month said the island's passports are being used to facilitate financial crime.
"To be blunt, we talk about places like St. Kitts as places where you go to escape from responsibilities," Christensen, an expert on tax havens, said by phone from London. "St. Kitts sells secrecy on the international market and, unsurprisingly, attracts all types of dirty money."
A woman who answered the phone at the office of the St. Kitts prime minister said the Citizenship-By-Investment program is "not a matter of buying passports, it's about gaining citizenship."