By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS May 9 (Reuters) - Venezuelan consumer prices rose in April at their fastest rate in three years, the central bank said on Thursday, presenting a growing economic challenge for recently elected President Nicolas Maduro.
Inflation last month reached 4.3 percent, with the annualized rate hitting 29.4 percent, driven by a 6.4 percent rise in food and non-alcoholic drinks.
The figures will make tough reading for Maduro, who won election last month by a narrow margin of 1.5 percentage points but is constantly accused of economic mismanagement by opposition leader Henrique Capriles.
Two devaluations and heavy government spending during most of last year have spurred inflation, which has become a top complaint throughout the OPEC-member nation.
"The April inflation in 2013 in our country was higher than what was registered in most Latin American countries in all of 2012!" Capriles said via his Twitter account.
Government leaders generally acknowledge that inflation is a problem. But they insist that citizens' lives continue to improve thanks to social programs such as subsidized groceries, free health clinics and a massive state-backed home-building program.
They say the problem is driven by businesses arbitrarily raising prices - an argument critics scoff at.
Economists point out that constant expansion of monetary liquidity, which grew 39 percent in the 12 months to April, makes inflation inevitable because it leaves more money chasing the same number of goods and services.
The April figure was the highest since a 5.2 percent increase in April 2010, which also came several months after a devaluation.
Annualized inflation is now closing in on the 30 percent rate estimated by Wall Street economists for the entire year of 2013 and nearly double the full-year target of around 15 percent used by legislators when they drew up the 2013 budget.
The Central Bank's index of product shortages reached a four-year high of 21.5 percent, reflecting the nagging complaints of Venezuelans, who are struggling to find goods ranging from auto parts to wheat and corn flour.
"We cannot rule out the possibility that shortages will get worse before they get better," said local consulting group Econometrica in a research note released before the inflation figure came out.
Most economists believe lowering inflation will require cutting or at least braking state spending.
But Maduro's popularity depends in large measure on maintaining the heavy outlays of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez's 14-year rule to finance generous social assistance and help ensure robust economic growth.
Blow-out campaign expenditures last year that helped re-elect Chavez left the government with fewer resources for programs such as housing construction and subsidized stores.
Critics say years of nationalizations under Chavez have limited the country's capacity to produce its own goods, while currency controls have left many importers unable to bring in consumer products from abroad.
Venezuela in February devalued the bolivar currency to 6.3 per dollar, from 4.3, in a widely expected move meant to help shore up government finances stretched by the heavy spending in 2012.
In March, the government, which has maintained currency controls for a decade, created a parallel foreign exchange system that auctioned $200 million. Local media reported the dollars were sold at rates as weak as 14 bolivars, though the government has declined to confirm that.