February 20, 2015 / 11:16 PM / 4 years ago

Eager Venezuelans line up to buy dollars at exchange houses

CARACAS, Feb 20 (Reuters) - Venezuelans queued up on Friday to purchase U.S. dollars in cash at exchange houses for the first time in 12 years, though prospective buyers complained the new system was tedious and few if any had yet to emerge with greenbacks in hand.

President Nicolas Maduro this month launched a free-floating currency mechanism, meant to address chronic dollar shortages, that includes purchases in small quantities designed for savers of modest means.

A few dozen people queued up inside an Italcambio exchange house in central Caracas on Friday in the hopes of getting their hands on up to $300 per day. Up to $200 in cash can be purchased; the remaining $100 is only available by transfer to a foreign bank account.

Clients said they had to register with Italcambio, wait for a call confirming their registration, come back to apply for the greenbacks, and then await the central bank’s confirmation their request had been accepted.

“For $200 first you have to leave your documents, then they call you, then you pay... When do we work?,” lamented saleswoman Noemie Ura.

Though skeptical, Ura said she was intent on giving the system a shot to be able to resume fabric imports from her native Peru, which she halted in October due to lack of hard currency.

The queue in front of her was slow-moving and fellow customers complained the system kept collapsing. Security guards outside limited entry to the packed exchange house.

“We’re going crazy,” joked one guard who said curious passersby had been grilling him about the new mechanism all day.

The system has piqued the interest of Venezuelans seeking a trip abroad or a hedge against annual inflation exceeding 68 percent.

“It’s a good rate and it’s safer than using the black market,” said Webster Gomez, 42, who trying his luck outside another brokerage in affluent Eastern Caracas.

The new platform, known as Simadi, traded at 171 bolivars per dollar on Friday, close to the black market’s rate of around 188.8.

Still, the socialist government insists most foreign exchange will be sold at two preferential rates: 6.3 for essential goods such as food staples, and 12 for other sectors.

Economists frequently point to the complex currency controls as the root of Venezuela’s spiraling economic crisis.

Lack of hard currency has crimped imports, fueling shortages of everything from toilet paper to medicines and stoking the OPEC country’s recession. (Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and David Gregorio)

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