Venezuela's non-oil exports hit lowest level since 2009

CARACAS, June 20 Thu Jun 20, 2013 5:30pm EDT

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CARACAS, June 20 (Reuters) - Venezuela's non-oil exports fell in March to their lowest level since early 2009 in another sign of the economic problems accruing for President Nicolas Maduro's fledgling government.

For decades, successive governments have decried the OPEC nation's over-dependence on oil - but done little to put into practice the grandiose words about diversifying the economy.

The latest data from the state statistics body showed non-oil exports fell to $145 million in March of this year, 37 percent lower than during the same month in 2012.

The only time monthly exports have been below that, since statistics were compiled in 1997, was $144 million in 2009.

The figure made further grim reading for Maduro, who won election in April to replace the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez after his death from cancer.

Growth slowed to 0.7 percent in the first quarter, inflation hit a 17-year high of more than 6 percent in May, and the local bolivar currency is fetching five times more on the black market than at the official rate of 6.3 to the dollar.

Venezuela's oil exports ensure a surplus in its balance of payments, but sales abroad of other products have been slipping since 2005. Last year's relatively paltry $3.8 billion of non-oil exports compared with $97.3 billion in oil sales, according to the Central Bank.

Local businesses blame various factors, from problems accessing foreign currency to delays at customs.

Maduro, who knows that his political fortunes could hinge on the economy improving, has met various business representatives in recent weeks to try and unblock problems.

Critics say a decade of currency controls and waves of nationalizations under Chavez's socialism has pulverized local production.

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