Three dead in Venezuela cash unrest

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  • Nicolás Maduro
    Nicolás Maduro
    53rd President of Venezuela

Caracas (AFP) - A weekend of looting and clashes left at least three people dead in Venezuela, authorities said, as anger roiled over a chaotic currency reform that left many without cash.

A man, a woman and an adolescent boy were shot dead when violence erupted on Saturday in the town of La Paragua, in the southern state of Bolivar, the attorney general's office confirmed on Monday.

The opposition Democratic Unity Roundtable (MUD), which accuses President Nicolas Maduro of driving oil-rich Venezuela to the brink of economic collapse, contested the death toll. It said five people had died in the state.

Unrest broke out Friday after Maduro ordered the 100-bolivar bill removed from circulation before the 500-bolivar bills intended to replace it had arrived.

Desperate Venezuelans looted delivery trucks, burned banks and clashed with police in towns across the country as the move left them with no cash to buy food.

Bolivar was the state hit hardest by the unrest. A curfew has been in force there since Saturday, and more than 3,000 troops are patrolling the streets.

Interior Minister Nestor Reverol said 286 people were arrested in the state, accusing the "Venezuelan far right" of fomenting the violence.

Maduro has likewise blamed the opposition for the unrest.

In Washington, the Organization of American States urged the government to "take all means necessary to restore order, address people's urgent needs and restore peace for its people."

- 'Obama's death throes' -

Faced with world-high inflation that has made the Venezuelan bolivar increasingly worthless, Maduro's socialist government is trying to introduce new bills in denominations of up to 20,000 bolivars.

Formerly the highest denomination bill, the 100-bolivar note is worth about three US cents on the black market, and accounts for 77 percent of the cash in circulation in Venezuela.

Maduro said it had to be urgently pulled because "mafias" were hoarding it abroad in what he called a US-backed plot to destabilize Venezuela.

Following the weekend's unrest, however, he extended its use as legal tender until January 2.

The new 500-bolivar note, the first in the new series, had originally been due to go into circulation last Thursday.

Maduro said the planes bringing it to Venezuela from abroad were delayed in a US-backed conspiracy.

The leftist firebrand called the alleged plot US President Barack Obama's "death throes."

On Sunday, the central bank said the first of the new bills had finally arrived.

Maduro has ordered Venezuela's borders with Colombia and Brazil closed until the 100-bolivar bill -- allegedly being hoarded there -- is retired for good.

- More chaos looms: opposition -

Chaos continued to reign Monday in Caracas, where many remained wary of 100-bolivar bills.

Long lines formed at banks as clients sought bills in denominations of 10, 20 and 50.

Beatriz Cortes, 65, had to go to three bank branches to find cash.

"They only gave me 5,000 bolivars (about $7.50 at the highest official exchange rate). And I've got no food at home," she said while standing in line yet again.

In Congress, where the opposition holds a majority, lawmakers voted to open an investigation into whether the Maduro administration was responsible for the violence.

"There are Venezuelans who lost their lives because of Nicolas Maduro and (central bank chief) Nelson Merentes's irresponsibility," said opposition deputy Alfonso Maquina.

His colleague Jose Guerra warned the chaos was only beginning.

"The banknotes that are going to arrive... represent just 40 percent of what's needed for December for the economy to function efficiently," said Guerra, an economist and former central bank official.

Maduro has presided over a deep recession as oil prices have plunged.

Venezuela is facing severe shortages of food, medicine and basic household goods.

Its inflation rate is set to hit 475 percent this year, according to an IMF forecast.

The economy, stuck in its third year of recession, will shrink 10 percent this year, the IMF predicts.

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