UPDATE 1-Venezuela January inflation reaches 3.3 pct

Fri Feb 8, 2013 1:37pm EST

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CARACAS Feb 8 (Reuters) - Venezuela's consumer prices rose 3.3 percent in January, the government said on Friday, as the OPEC nation struggles to stem inflation after heavy 2012 state spending that helped President Hugo Chavez win reelection.

The rate dipped slightly from 3.5 percent in December, but was still the second-highest monthly jump in nearly three years.

Prices for food and nonalcoholic beverages increased the most last month, recording a 5.3 percent rise, followed by restaurant and hotel costs, which climbed 4.2 percent.

Legislation preventing merchants from raising prices on a wide range of consumer products helped keep inflation in check in 2012 as the cancer-stricken Chavez, currently in Cuba for medical treatment, hit the campaign trail.

Annual inflation in 2012 was 20.1 percent - the lowest in four years for Venezuela but still one of the highest in Latin America.

But a scarcity of dollars under the government's currency control system has created temporary shortages of some products as businesses struggle to import goods not produced locally.

A "scarcity index," which measures the shortages of consumer products, topped 20 percent - the highest level since 2008.

Shoppers have for weeks complained of unsteady supply of staples including sugar, corn flour and wheat flour. Some bakeries have had to ration sales of fresh bread for lack of supplies.

Business leaders say the government urgently needs to devalue the bolivar currency, which would increase government revenue from oil sales. The official exchange rate is 4.3 bolivars per dollar, but greenbacks on the black market are fetching nearly four times that rate.

Meanwhile, the government appears to be trying to postpone a politically unpopular currency devaluation that business leaders say is necessary.

It is seeking new financing from China and has revamped an oil industry tax that will increase funds moving into central bank coffers by reducing contributions to an off-budget development fund.

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