Pockets of protests, looting in Venezuela as cash dries up

Venezuelan National Guard members control the crowd as people queue to deposit their 100 bolivar notes, near Venezuela's Central Bank in Caracas, Venezuela Venezuelan National Guard members control the crowd as people queue to deposit their 100 bolivar notes, near Venezuela's Central Bank in Caracas, Venezuela December 16, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

By Anggy Polanco and Maria Ramirez

EL PINAL/CIUDAD GUAYANA, Venezuela (Reuters) – Small protests and looting broke out in some Venezuelan provinces on Friday due to lack of cash after the socialist government suddenly decreed this week that its largest banknote would be pulled from circulation in the midst of a punishing economic crisis.

President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday gave Venezuelans a few days to ditch the 100-bolivar bills, arguing the measure was needed to combat mafias on the Colombia border despite warnings from some economists that it risked sparking chaos.

Venezuela’s opposition says this latest measure is further evidence that Maduro is destroying the economy and must be removed. Authorities have blocked a vote against the leftist leader, however, leaving social unrest as a possible wild card in the volatile country.

With new bills, originally due on Thursday, still nowhere to be seen, many Venezuelans on Friday were unable to fill their car tank to get to work, buy breakfast, or get gifts ahead of Christmas.

Many cash machines were broken or empty, shops struggled to be paid, and tips vanished.

“We feel this is a mockery,” said bus driver Richard Montilva as he and some 400 others blocked a street outside a bank in the town of El Pinal in Tachira state near Colombia.

Maduro held up the new bills during a televised broadcast on Thursday night and said they would come into circulation soon. But there was increasing nervousness on the streets that the notes were not ready.

The circulation of the new notes “is a mystery to us too,” said a source at the central bank, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

Outside the central bank in Caracas on Friday, thousands of Venezuelans queued up to swap their 100 bolivar bills before a final Tuesday deadline under the watch of National Guard soldiers. One orange and avocado vendor offered to buy them up for 80 bolivars.

Maduro’s shock decision is stoking anger among weary Venezuelans who have for years already stood in long lines for food and medicine amid product shortages and triple-digit inflation.

Six businesses in the isolated Bolivar state were looted on Friday after stores refused to accept the soon-to-be defunct bills, said the mayor of El Callao, Coromoto Lugo, who belongs to the opposition.

Maduro blames the crisis on an “economic war” waged against his government to weaken the bolivar currency and unseat him. Critics scoff at that explanation, pointing instead to state controls and excessive money printing.

“I want a change in government. I don’t care about changing the bills; they’re not worth anything anyway,” said Isabel Gonzalez, 62, standing in line at the central bank on Friday.

She said she had just enough cash to get a bus home.

(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta and Alexandra Ulmer in Caracas; Editing by Mary Milliken)

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