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Chavez Policy Sends Venezuelans on Cross-Border Cash Hunt

Hugo Chavez
Exchange houses in Colombian border towns have become the only “liquid market” in trading of bolivars for dollars after President Hugo Chavez banned currency trading and required banks to use a state-run market. Photographer: Juan Barreto/AFP/Getty Images

For Gustavo Posse, the easiest way to get dollars these days involves a 403-mile drive from Valencia, in central Venezuela, to Cucuta in Colombia.

Posse, the owner of a medical clinic, made the drive last month to get hard currency to pay for the surgical equipment he was importing from the U.S. The 58-year-old businessman said he asked the Venezuelan government to sell him dollars. The answer was no.

“I have to change money here because in Venezuela it’s not allowed,” Posse said in an interview at his hotel in Cucuta, northeastern Colombia, last month. At home, “I apply for official dollars for my business but they never approve it.”

Exchange houses in Colombian border towns like Cucuta have become the only “liquid market” in trading of bolivars for dollars after President Hugo Chavez banned currency trading last May and required banks to use a state-run market, said Ricardo Hausmann, director of the Center for International Development at Harvard University.

“It’s a desperate situation for businesses, especially in Venezuela where everything is imported,” said Juan Pablo Fuentes, Latin American economist at Moody’s Analytics in Philadelphia. “These currency controls are like a game. The government looks to fence you in and you are always looking to find the exit.”

Riskiest Economy

For people like Posse, the exit is Cucuta, a town of 560,000 where Simon Bolivar formed a congress in 1821 that sought to unify South America as one state following its liberation from Spanish rule. Posse said he goes to Cucuta even though he only gets about half the dollars for what his bolivars are supposed to be worth, based on Chavez’s official exchange rate.

Cucuta’s rate weakened to 8.30 bolivars per dollar today from 8.19 bolivars on April 8, according to Javier Trillos, a financial consultant at Comprador y Vendedor de Divisas Italcambios Cucuta. The firm is unrelated to Caracas-based Organizacion Italcambio CA.

The Venezuelan government offers 4.3 bolivars per dollar and the central bank-run system offers 5.3 bolivars per dollar. Trading at any other rate in the country is illegal. Still, around 11 percent of imports are carried out using a black market, according to Alejandro Grisanti of Barclays Capital.

Black Market

Black market operations work by importers sending bolivars to a trader via electronic transfer who in turn sends dollars to a U.S. account. Smaller transactions also occur in cash.

The gap between the unofficial and official exchange rates shows Chavez is overvaluing the bolivar given the state of the Venezuelan economy, Bret Rosen, a Latin America debt strategist with Standard Chartered Bank in New York, said in a telephone interview.

Venezuela was the last economy in Latin America to pull out of the recession after the global financial crisis that started in 2008 and its inflation rate of 27.4 percent in March was the highest in the world among 78 economies tracked by Bloomberg.

The extra yield investors demand to buy Venezuelan dollar bonds instead of U.S. treasuries was 1,009 basis points, or 10.09 percentage points today, the most of any developing nation in JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s EMBI+ index.

Colombia’s yield premium was 154 basis points. The Colombian economy expanded at the fastest pace since 2007 in the fourth quarter on rising consumer confidence and bank lending.

Healing Wounds

Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos made healing wounds with Venezuela key to his presidential campaign, calming concerns he wouldn’t tolerate Chavez, the self-described revolutionary socialist. Colombia’s exports to Venezuela fell 80 percent to $182 million in the first two months of this year from $928 million in the same period in 2008 following several spats between Chavez and Santos’ predecessor Alvaro Uribe, according to the Colombian statistics agency.

A Venezuelan finance ministry official, who can’t be named in accordance with government policy, declined to comment. Messages to Santos’ spokeswoman weren’t answered.

About 375 miles from Colombia’s capital, Cucuta trades about $5 million of bolivars a day, according to Carlos Luna, president of the Association of Professional Moneychangers of Norte de Santander, or Asocambios. The Cucuta Chamber of Commerce has registered 285 exchange houses and many more exist, Carlos Gamboa, an economist with the group, said in an interview.

Chavez Shut Down

Chavez, who first imposed currency controls in 2003, shut down the unregulated market last year in an attempt to slow capital flight that reached $18.5 billion in 2010. Companies and investors that were unable to get dollars from the government at the official exchange rate used that market. Also known as the parallel market, it allowed brokerages to swap bonds for dollars.

The move reduced the supply of dollars available for Venezuelans. The central bank money-changing system, Sitme, traded an average of $33.8 million a day since it opened June 9. Foreign-exchange trading was about $100 million a day before the capital controls, said Russell Dallen, head trader for Caracas capital markets at BBO Financial Services. The market limits a company’s purchases to $50,000 a day.

The government left in place the Foreign Exchange Board, known as Cadivi, which sells at 4.3 bolivars and supplied an average of $119 million a day during the first quarter.

‘Absurd’ System

“I don’t know of any country in the world that has a more inefficient and absurd exchange rate regime,” Hausmann, who was a Venezuelan planning minister from 1992 to 1993, said in a telephone interview from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Venezuela’s currency control system “generates uncontrolled inflation, fiscal swings and periodic massive devaluations,” he said.

On the sidewalks of Parque Santander, Cucuta’s principal square, signs seek to coax people to sell bolivars while vendors working on commission hawk for exchange business.

David Pernia, a 32-year-old communications systems engineer in western Venezuela, said he makes the 33-kilometer trip from his home town of San Cristobal to Cucuta to change bolivars for Colombian pesos to keep his business running.

“I always come here because it’s safe and legal,” Pernia said.

About 20 to 40 Venezuelans visit each of Cucuta’s exchange houses daily, Trillos of Italcambios estimates.

Venezuelans also bring bolivars out of the country to counter rising inflation and an increasingly devalued bolivar, Luna of Asocambios said.

Losing Patience

Posse said he exchanged more than 180,000 bolivars at the rate of 224 Colombian pesos each. He converted the money into dollars by wiring it to his son in Miami, who then used the cash to buy about $20,000 on surgical machinery for Posse’s clinic.

Posse said the trips to Cucuta every two months have become a chore and he’s considering selling his business in Venezuela.

“You ask for dollars from Cadivi and they don’t approve them because that’s a monopoly,” said Posse, a Colombian citizen. “If I could find a buyer for the business I would already have returned to Colombia or joined my son in the U.S.”

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