(Corrects typographical error in paragraph 8)
CARACAS Jan 9 Recession-hit Venezuela's imports
plunged by more than half to nearly $18 billion in 2016,
President Nicolas Maduro said on Monday, as the nation
prioritized foreign debt payments despite chronic product
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
nationalizations have hurt domestic production.
"2016 was the hardest, longest and most difficult year we
have known," Maduro said.
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," it 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," it added.
(Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Richard Chang)