Bahamas looks to turn page after cryptocurrency exchange FTX leaves people without jobs

On a December night in the Bahamas, Bishop Lawrence Rolle belts out the lyrics to his latest hit song for the hundreds of children and adults gathered to celebrate Christmas.

“FTX!,” he sings, bent over and shaking his head for emphasis. “The money is gone!”

“FTX!,” his backup singer and audience scream back. “The money have done gone!”

The cryptocurrency exchange FTX was supposed to be the crown jewel of the Bahamian government’s push to be the global destination for all things crypto, after years of having an economy that was overly reliant on tourism and banking.

Instead, FTX is bankrupt and Bahamians are trying to figure out what is next for their country and whether their national crypto experiment has failed.

Regulators are trying to locate FTX’s customers’ missing money.

Meanwhile, charities such as Bishop Rolle’s, plus dozens of contractors now out of work, hope that another company will come along and bring new opportunities to the island nation, without the complications and embarrassment of an alleged billion-dollar fraud.

Bishop Rolle — a Pentecostal preacher known as the “singing bishop” — is a prominent figure in the Bahamas.

For decades, he has cooked and donated food to the poor and provided school lunches from his neighbourhood kitchen at International Deliverance Praying Ministry in Over-The-Hill, one of the most impoverished parts of the capital of Nassau.

Bishop Rolle and his staff feed roughly 2,500 people a week.

He was invited to a school to sing as part of its Christmas celebration.

Bishop Lawrence Rolle performs at a Christmas concert at Mt Carmel Preparatory Academy in Nassau. (AP Photo: Ken Sweet)

His act consisted mostly of a half dozen Afro-Caribbean gospel songs, but one number stood out: his social media hit about the recent collapse of FTX.

Bishop Rolle’s ministry received $US50,000 ($73,000) from FTX in early 2022, one of several donations FTX made to the Bahamian people after it relocated to the island nation in 2021.

He said the money was used to restore a food storage trailer and make additional food donations.

Bishop Lawrence Rolle stands between two shelves with his back to the camera.
Bishop Lawrence Rolle looks over toys and supplies in his trailer, which he restored with the donation from FTX. (AP Photo: Ken Sweet)

The bishop described FTX’s failure as a sad distraction from the many issues facing the country.

Others are angry, particularly with FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried.

FTX’s downfall ‘frustrating’

The Bahamas had a reputation, like some other Caribbean isles, as a destination for illicit and offshore finance.

There was a belief that crypto would allow the island to diversify its economy, create more financial opportunities and help provide a more-prosperous future.

A man in a suit is escorted by police from a courthouse.
FTX founder Sam Bankman-Fried (centre) is escorted out of court in Nassau. (AP Photo: Rebecca Blackwell)

The Bahamas enacted the Digital Assets and Registered Exchanges Act in 2020, making it one of the first countries to put together a regulatory framework for cryptocurrencies and other digital assets.

Its prime minister, Philip Davis, participated in the groundbreaking ceremony for FTX’s new, $US60 million headquarters in Nassau in April, along with Mr Bankman-Fried.

“Their arrival was sort of the culmination of the work the Bahamians did to move in this direction,” Caribbean Blockchain Association chief executive Stefen Deleveaux said.

Several other crypto companies and startups are headquartered in the Bahamas, some of them at an incubator known as Crypto Isle, not far from downtown Nassau.

Mr Deleveaux said he became interested in crypto as early as 2014, and mostly has been trying to focus his organisation’s efforts on blockchain technology, financial inclusion and technological uses.

He remains skeptical about cryptocurrency trading.

“It’s frustrating. Now when people think about crypto, they are going to think of FTX,” Mr Deleveaux said.

“That’s going to make my own job much harder.”

In some ways, FTX was both ubiquitous and removed from the local community, Bahamians have said.

Its ads were everywhere, most notably at the Nassau Airport, in the hall for tourist arrivals.