Venezuela's Central Bank suspends dollar auctions amid seven-week-old strike

Published: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 17, 2003 at 2:32 a.m.

CARACAS, Venezuela - Venezuela's Central Bank suspended its daily dollars auctions Thursday, trying to stop a currency slide as international pressure increased on President Hugo Chavez and the opposition to negotiate an end to a 7-week-old strike.

The Central Bank did not give a reason for its decision to suspend the weekly auctions, but traders said it would give the institution more discretion to decide who gets to buy dollars.

The opposition is demanding Chavez agree to a plebiscite in February on his presidency. Although the referendum would be nonbinding, strike leaders believe Chavez, who was elected in 1998 and re-elected in 2000, would be so embarrassed by its outcome he would step down.

At the United Nations, Chavez said Thursday it will be "virtually impossible" to hold a nonbinding referendum on his rule Feb. 2. He said the constitution only provides for a binding referendum halfway through his term which would be in August.

"In August if there is a referendum and I lose, I will leave. I have no intention to stay if the people don't want me," he said speaking to reporters Thursday after meeting U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

"Replacing a president is not like taking off a baseball pitcher ... or changing one's shirt," he said. "It's a little more complicated than that. But the procedure exists and is established in the constitution."

The currency move came just before the bolivar currency closed at 1,715 on Thursday, slightly up from Wednesday.

One trader, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the Central Bank was only providing dollars to banks and others with legitimate needs, such as merchants who have to pay for imported goods.

The bank said it was providing dollars through its foreign exchange desk instead of through daily auctions.

The strike has crippled Venezuela's oil exports, which provide half of government income. The government has said the strike has cost the country $4 billion.

Despite government assurances that it did not plan to devalue the bolivar, citizens lined up at banks and exchange houses this week, pushing demand for dollars to about $114 million a day. Most government income is in dollars, and a weaker bolivar would increase its domestic spending power.

Thursday, thousands of university students marched through the streets of Caracas, demanding an end to strike-related violence. Five people have died since the strike began Dec. 2.

On Wednesday, representatives from the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Chile, Spain and Portugal agreed to create a forum known as "Group of Friends of Venezuela" to seek solutions for the strike.

At the United Nations, Chavez said the initiative should be expanded to include countries such as Russia, France, Algeria, and China.

Annan "reiterated his concern ... and emphasized the need to take further steps in accordance with the Constitution and respect for democratic principles, justice and human rights," his spokesman said.

The idea of the friends initiative is to add more weight to negotiations sponsored by Organization of American States Secretary-General Cesar Gaviria.

"The OAS doesn't have that much leverage," said Steve Johnson, a Latin American specialist at the Washington-based Heritage Foundation. "It's probably going to have more of an effect than leaving Gaviria to do it by himself."

In a report this week, Santander Central Hispano Investment warned that Venezuela's economy could contract as much as 40 percent in the first quarter of 2003 if the crisis isn't resolved soon.

Venezuela's economy contracted by an estimated 8 percent in 2002. Unemployment is 17 percent and inflation is 30 percent.

Chavez has fired 1,000 striking employees at the state oil monopoly and has claimed oil production was back up to 1 million barrels a day. Strike leaders insist it's only 400,000 barrels a day. Normally, it's 3 million.

Chavez, who was first elected in 1998 on promises to help the country's poor majority, has seen his popularity drop to about 30 percent amid economic and political turmoil.

Opponents accuse the former paratroop commander of widening class divisions with his fiery rhetoric and trying to establish a socialist regime in this South American nation of 24 million.

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