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Venezuela devalues currency 32% against US dollar

Lissy de Abreu
This file photo shows Venezuelan Bolivars, pictured in Caracas, on December 7, 2011. Venezuela said on Friday it is devaluing its currency by 32 percent against the US dollar on the orders of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez, who sees it as a way to boost economic growth.

Venezuela said it is devaluing its currency by 32 percent against the dollar on the orders of cancer-stricken President Hugo Chavez, in part to trim a bloated budget deficit.

The bolivar will go from 4.3 to 6.3 to the dollar at the official exchange rate. The move was announced on Friday at a press conference by Planning and Finance Minister Jorge Giordani. He said it will take effect on Wednesday.

The goal is to "minimize expenditure and maximize results." One effect of a devaluation is to make a country's exports cheaper and thus more enticing to buyers.

But another effect is to cut the deficit, which in Venezuela last year was estimated to be nearly 10 percent of GDP.

The economy grew 5.5 percent last year and inflation was 20 percent. That was down seven points from the previous year and hit the government target, but was still the highest official inflation rate in Latin America.

Venezuela is South America's largest oil exporter and has the world's largest proven reserves. Its oil transactions are dollar-denominated, so the bolivar-value of those sales will now be higher, boosting state revenues on paper.

The change had been widely expected by analysts and business leaders since last year. This is Venezuela's fifth currency devaluation in a decade.

But a side effect of the new one will be higher inflation, economists warned.

Giordani said the government would honor dollar purchase requests made before January 15 requests at the old exchange rate.

Chavez is convalescing in Cuba, where he underwent a fourth round of cancer surgery on December 11.

Vice President Nicolas Maduro, who visited Chavez this week, said at the same press conference Friday that Chavez is concerned about the Venezuelan economy and called for a "major effort" to maintain its pace of growth.

Chavez established currency controls in 2003 and the government sets the rate to curb capital flight.

But the existence of a strong black market for the dollar shows the continuing desire for hard currency.

Economist Jesus Casique warned the devaluation would have a major inflationary side effect and the government should not see it as the main tool for trimming the deficit.

Rather, it should take other steps such as clearing away red tape that makes it hard for business to obtain dollars and encouraging Venezuelan non-oil exports.

"The measure should come hand in hand with others," Casique said.

Out on the street, there was little enthusiasm for the devaluation.

"This is bad news," said businessman Jorge Martinez, walking past the Venezuelan central bank with his wife. "We have been number-crunching because in a month we are going to travel to Spain, and now we do not have enough money."