Venezuela 2016 imports down more than half to $18 billion: president

(This January 100 story was refiled to correct typographical error in paragraph 8)

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CARACAS (Reuters) - Recession-hit Venezuela’s imports plunged by more than half to nearly $18 billion in 2016, President Nicolas Maduro said on Monday, as the country prioritized foreign debt payments despite chronic product shortages.

Maduro, in a meeting with businessmen, said the private sector accounted for $11 billion of imports, while the cash-strapped public sector brought in $6.8 billion of products.

“You accounted for 60 percent of imports for the first time in 100 years,” Maduro told the businessmen, blaming the oil price fall since mid-2014 for shrinking state coffers.

Imports have fallen during three years of recession in the member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries from a record high of $66 billion in 2012 to $36.9 billion in 2015, according to Central Bank figures.

Despite plunging oil revenues, Venezuela managed to pay $17 billion in foreign debt and build 360,000 new homes in a state housing project last year, Maduro said.

But Venezuela’s 30 million people have been suffering long shopping lines, while basic foodstuffs, medicines and other products have been running short. Price controls and nationalization have hurt domestic production.

Maduro said, “2016 was the hardest, longest and most difficult year we have known.”

In a research note on Monday, Torino Capital said Venezuela’s import data demonstrated the Maduro government’s commitment to keep paying maturing debt despite market speculation it may be heading toward an eventual default.

“The bottom line is that the data continues to show a very strong import contraction which shows no sign of abating and may even be intensifying,” the note said.

This “supports the hypothesis that the government is restricting foreign currency allocations for imports to free up resources that will allow it to continue servicing its external obligations,” Torino Capital said.

Also on Monday, Maduro announced the government would start selling Colombian pesos at state-run exchange houses along the border “very soon.”

“The exchange houses will have fair offers in pesos and bolivars,” Maduro said, without specifying what rate would be used.

The ruling Socialists introduced currency controls in 2003, but with demand vastly outpacing supply, many have turned to the black market. Venezuela’s cash-strapped economy has been in recession since 2014.

Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne, Corina Pons and Alexandra Ulmer; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Richard Chang and Grant McCool