* Government promises for dollars for importers
* Acting president Maduro faces April 14 election
By Brian Ellsworth and Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS, March 19 Venezuela vowed on Tuesday to
provide more dollars to importers through a new foreign exchange
system, but officials gave only vague details of how it will
work and skirted around key issues including what the rate would
The measure appears to be an attempt by the government of
acting President Nicolas Maduro to ease import bottlenecks
caused by a lack of dollars as he heads into an April 14
election triggered by the death of Hugo Chavez.
Maduro's administration hopes the new mechanism will improve
supplies of products such as medicine in the import-dependent
OPEC nation which operates a tightly-controlled currency control
system created by the late socialist leader.
But the move would almost certainly require selling dollars
at a rate higher than the official rate of 6.3 bolivars -
constituting a politically hazardous devaluation that could
further spur one of the region's highest inflation rates.
"We are going to increase the availability of foreign
exchange," said Finance Minister Jorge Giordani in a press
conference. The new system, he added, would guarantee the
"absolute transparency of the distribution of currency."
Statements by Giordani and central bank president Nelson
Merentes suggested the mechanism would sell dollars for more
than the official rate, but less than the black market rate of
about four times that.
But they declined to answer repeated questions by reporters
as to how much the dollars would sell for, and said they had not
determined how much would be sold or how often.
"The auction will be defined by some parameters, which are
explained in the document that will be published ... it has to
be something democratic and open but with a cap," Giordani said.
Such a mechanism appears to be similar to one based on
bond-swaps that the government scrapped in February, in which
the exchange rate was effectively fixed.
Venezuela devalued its currency by 32 percent last month in
the fifth such move in a decade under Chavez's rule. Critics
were already complaining on Twitter that the new mechanism
constituted a second devaluation in just six weeks.
Maduro said on Monday that the new system would help lower
the parallel rate, which has been a key factor in pushing up
consumer prices. At around 20 percent per year, Venezuela's
inflation is one of the highest in the region.
Merchants frequently mark up prices in response to shifts in
the volatile parallel exchange rate, which has weakened
considerably since last year amid a dearth of greenbacks.
Critics say the decade-long currency control system creates
ample opportunities for corruption by allowing well-connected
Venezuelans to buy dollars at the official rate and resell them
on the black market for a quick profit.
Businesses have for years complained about restrictions on
access to foreign currency. The government argues that it is
obliged to maintain controls to counter speculative trading.