* Edmee Betancourt would be second female bank head
* Former commerce minister is staunch socialist
* Congress needs to ratify president's nomination
By Marianna Parraga
CARACAS, April 23 The nominee to lead
Venezuela's central bank, Edmee Betancourt, is known as a
dedicated socialist who backed the drive by late President Hugo
Chavez to expand state control over the economy but who also
knows when to ditch dogma for down-to-earth policy.
Former colleagues of Betancourt, a low-profile former
commerce minister who would be the second woman to lead the OPEC
member-nation's central bank, say she could reform monetary and
exchange rate policy despite her socialist convictions.
"She is a supporter of state control over the economy, but
in a flexible way," said Victor Alvarez, a former industry
ministry who once supervised Betancourt. "She's very
hard-working and sensible when it comes to making decisions."
An industrial engineer with an advanced degree in
mathematics, Betancourt has been at the helm of two state-run
banks and a development fund financed by China.
She rarely indulged in the vituperative speeches and
acrimonious exchange of insults that were typical of
high-ranking officials during Chavez's 14-year rule.
If her nomination is backed by Congress, she will replace
Nelson Merentes, considered the most pragmatic and
market-friendly member of the government's economic team. The
ruling Socialist Party has a majority in Congress, meaning
President Nicolas Maduro's nomination of Betancourt is virtually
Alvarez said Betancourt is well aware of the need to boost
the productivity of the local economy, which has been crimped by
price and currency controls and a six-year wave of
nationalizations across most sectors.
She led several efforts to adjust government-regulated
prices and bring them in line with the realities of the market,
including pushing for higher rates at parking garages that were
struggling to make ends meet under price controls.
Contrasting with that, however, many associate Betancourt
with former Finance Minister Jorge Giordani, who is seen as a
recalcitrant defender of rigid price and currency controls that
critics deem ineffective.
As commerce minister she was instrumental in pushing forward
an expansion of price controls starting at the end of 2011. The
system was heavily criticized by private businesses who insisted
they were at times being forced to sell below production costs.
"In our opinion this is not a positive nomination as we
believe Ms Betancourt - who is an ally of Jorge Giordani - will
continue with the policy of subordinating the (bank) to the
Executive," wrote Barclays analysts in a research note.
Betancourt faces a difficult panorama of slowing growth and
rising inflation following heavy campaign spending in 2012 that
helped ensure Chavez's re-election shortly before his death of
The country's decade-long currency control system is
struggling to provide enough dollars to the import-dependent
economy, creating shortages of products ranging from motorcycle
parts to wheat flour.
Private sector leaders hope she will expand a newly created
currency mechanism that auctions U.S. dollars at a rate higher
than the official rate of 6.3 bolivars per dollar. Greenbacks on
the black market currently fetch close to four times that.
Inflation is being spurred by two devaluations in the first
quarter, with consumer prices rising 8 percent in the first
three months of the year alone. Most private economists say
growth could drop to 2 percent from 5.6 percent last year.
Unlike other countries, Venezuela's central bank has become
increasingly focused on providing financing for state-run
companies, providing billions of dollars in loans to state oil