CARACAS Venezuela, mired in an economic crisis and facing the world's highest inflation, will pull its largest bill, worth two U.S. cents on the black market, from circulation this week ahead of introducing new higher-value notes, President Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday.
The surprise move, announced by Maduro during an hours-long speech, is likely to worsen a cash crunch in Venezuela. Maduro said the 100-bolivar bill will be taken out of circulation on Wednesday and Venezuelans will have 10 days after that to exchange those notes at the central bank.
Critics slammed the move, which Maduro said was needed to combat contraband of the bills at the volatile Colombia-Venezuela border, as economically nonsensical, adding there would be no way to swap all the 100-bolivar bills in circulation in the time the president has allotted.
Central bank data showed that in November, there were more than six billion 100-bolivar bills in circulation, 48 percent of all bills and coins. Authorities on Thursday are due to start releasing six new notes and three new coins, the largest of which will be worth 20,000 bolivars, less than $5 on the streets.
No official inflation data is available for 2016 though many economists see it in triple digits. Economic consultancy Ecoanalitica estimates annual inflation this year at more than 500 percent.
The oil-producing nation's bolivar currency has fallen 55 percent against the U.S. dollar on the black market in the last month.
"When ineptitude governs! Who would possibly think of doing something like this in December amid all our problems?" two-time opposition presidential candidate Henrique Capriles wrote on Twitter, referring to the upcoming Christmas holiday.
Maduro previously has said that organized crime networks at the Colombia-Venezuela border buy up Venezuelan notes to in turn buy subsidized Venezuelan goods and sell them for vast profits in Colombia.
While smuggling of this sort is an issue at the border, it cannot account for nationwide shortages of the most basic goods from food to medicine, which have left millions hungry and doctors crying out for help.
"I have decided to take out of circulation bills of 100 bolivars in the next 72 hours," Maduro said. "We must keep beating the mafias."
Paying a restaurant or supermarket bill without a debit or credit card can often require a backpack full of cash. However, getting cash in recent months has proven difficult, and the country's credit-card machines have recently suffered problems, leaving many businesses asking customers to pay by bank transfer
Strict currency controls introduced in 2003 that pegged the bolivar to the dollar, coupled with heavy reliance on oil, are seen as the root of the crisis by most economists. Maduro has blamed an "economic war" being waged against his government by the opposition and the United States.
Money supply, the sum of cash and checking deposits as well as savings and other "near money" deposits, was up a staggering 19 percent in the three weeks to Dec. 2 and the curve has been exponential since Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez came to power in 1999.
(Reporting by Girish Gupta, Diego Ore and Corina Pons; Writing by Girish Gupta; Editing by Will Dunham)