* Brazil posts smaller-than-expected trade surplus in March
* Drop in oil sales, rise in fuel imports hits balance
* Imports rise 11.6 pct over March 2012
By Alonso Soto
BRASILIA, April 1 Brazil posted the smallest trade surplus for the month of March since 2001, largely due to a drop in oil exports and an increase in the purchase of petroleum derivatives, such as gasoline, the government said on Monday.
Brazil posted a trade surplus of $164 million in March, the trade ministry said. That result was smaller than expectations for a $200 million surplus, according to the median forecast of 11 analysts surveyed by Reuters.
The country posted a trade deficit of $1.2 billion in February and a record high gap of $4 billion in January.
Record soy and corn crops should help the trade balance improve in coming months, said Foreign Trade Secretary Tatiana Prazeres. She declined to give an official estimate for the trade surplus this year.
"We expect exports to remain at the record levels we saw in 2012 and 2011," she told reporters in Brasilia.
Brazil had record exports in 2011 of $256 billion, but exports fell 5.3 percent to $242.58 billion in 2012. The 2012 number was still higher than any year prior to 2011.
Exports in March rose 1.6 percent to $19.32 billion versus the same month in 2012, while imports rose 11.6 percent to $19.159 billion.
Brazil's trade deficit in the first three months of the year amounted to $5.150 billion. Last week, the central bank revised its 2013 trade surplus estimate to $15 billion from $17 billion previously.
The government has blamed the large trade deficit so far this year on a change in the tax agency's accounting procedures that included billions of dollars in fuel imports from 2012 in this year's trade balance.
Prazeres acknowledged that $1.8 billion in fuel import bills from last year will likely limit the recovery of the trade balance in coming months.
A drop in Brazilian exports to Argentina has also hurt the trade balance and further splintered trade ties between the South American neighbors.
Prazeres said the daily average of exports to Argentina rose 7.7 percent in March, the first increase since February of 2012.
Brazilian exports so far this year fell 7.7 percent when compared with the same period last year due to weak demand abroad for Brazil's relatively uncompetitive products. A dip in the price of commodities has also curbed income from exports.
Years of anemic investment in industries and infrastructure in the commodities powerhouse have crippled the ability of local producers to compete against rivals abroad.
Although exports make up only about 10 percent of Brazil's $2.5 trillion gross domestic product, they are considered a key part of the economy by President Dilma Rousseff's government.
Rousseff has offered billions of dollars in subsidized lending to help exporters, mostly those who produce manufactured goods. She has also raised trade barriers on dozens of imported products to protect local industry.
Brazil is also backing one of its own, ambassador Roberto Azevedo, to head the World Trade Organization in a bid to increase its clout in the trade club.
Still, Brazil posted its smallest annual trade surplus in a decade last year. The country's trade surplus fell 35 percent to $19.44 billion in 2012, the weakest performance since 2002.