(Recasts; adds background on ministers)
By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS Jan 4 Venezuelan President Nicolas
Maduro on Wednesday shuffled his cabinet by naming a new economy
czar to oversee the OPEC country's decaying socialist system and
a new oil minister to confront the economic difficulties caused
by low oil prices.
The country is suffering from triple-digit inflation,
Soviet-style production shortages and increasing street protests
as a combination of dysfunctional state controls and low oil
prices. Maduro says he is the victim of an "economic war."
Economist Ramon Lobo, who has been serving as a legislator
for the ruling Socialist Party, will assume the dual roles of
finance minister and economy vice president - making him the
country's top economic authority.
"You shall assume, with a firm hand, the oversight of the
economy," said Maduro during a televised broadcast, describing
Lobo as an expert in budget matters.
Nelson Martinez, who has led the U.S.-based refiner Citgo,
will take on the role of oil minister. Outgoing minister Eulogio
Del Pino will remain on as president of state oil company PDVSA.
The oil minister has traditionally served as the
representative to OPEC, where Venezuela has for nearly three
years been one of the strongest voices for production cuts.
Maduro also named state governor Tarek El Aissami as new
vice president, replacing outgoing Aristobulo Isturiz, who had
served as an intermediary with the opposition-run legislature.
Cabinet shuffles have been relatively common in Venezuela
since the 14-year rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez, who
died of cancer in 2013. Officials tend to come from the inner
circle of the ruling Socialist Party, and as such do not tend to
be the leaders of broad policy changes.
Economists say Venezuela's economy will not return to growth
until it lifts corruption-riddled exchange controls and
dysfunctional price control system and rolls back hundreds of
nationalizations that have left many industries unproductive.
The country last year brought in a new economic team that
promised to create a market-based currency exchange platform,
but that system never took off and its promoters were soon
removed in a cabinet shuffle.
The central bank not published economic statistics such as
economy growth and inflation for 2016. In February, it said
consumer prices in 2015 rose 181 percent and GDP had contracted
by 5.7 percent.
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth)