Venezuelan rush to unload bank notes before deadline


CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Venezuelans took a break from lining up to buy food and medicine Tuesday and spent their day waiting in crowds to deposit bank notes about to become worthless.

As tempers flared in bank lines, political tensions rose as well, with congress officially charging President Nicolas Maduro with dereliction of duty for driving the South American country into economic ruin.

Maduro made a surprise announcement over the weekend that the 100-bolivar note, having already lost most of its value this year, will be taken out of circulation Wednesday. It is the country's largest-denominated bill and the most widely used.

Monday was a bank holiday, so starting Tuesday morning people lined up before banks opened waiting to deposit their 100-bolivar notes in their accounts. Wealthier Venezuelans skipped the lines and instead carted backpacks full of bills to spend them at restaurants and upscale shopping centers.

People working in Venezuela's informal economy who keep their savings in cash talked gloomily at taxi stands and street kiosks. About one-third of Venezuelans don't have bank accounts, so have no way to deposit the soon-to-be-worthless bills.

The 100-bolivar note fell in value this year from 10 cents to 2 cents. Some are using the bills to decorate Christmas trees or are handing them out as party favors at bars.

The socialist government has promised to release higher-denomination notes this week amid the world's highest inflation and widespread shortages of goods. But economists say the rollout will not be fast enough to replace the 100-bolivar note and avoid a temporary freeze on cash transactions. On Tuesday, banks quickly ran out of lower denomination bills.

Along with the surprise decommissioning of the most widely used bill, Maduro shut the border with Colombia this week, saying a 72-hour closure was needed to attack "mafias" that are destabilizing the economy by hoarding hard-to-find bolivar notes and sending them back across the border for huge gain. Critics mocked the idea that gangsters would keep their wealth in the world's fastest devaluing currency.

The currency chaos held center stage Tuesday, and few people paid much attention to the day's political wrangling.

In a largely symbolic gesture, the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared Maduro responsible for the country's economic and social crisis and said he had failed to complete his constitutional duties.

Lawmakers began holding impeachment hearings against Maduro in October, even though Venezuela's congress has no power to remove a president from office. They had put the campaign on hold to engage in Vatican-mediated negotiations with the government, but those talks fell apart last week as the opposition protested the government's lack of concessions and legislators resumed the "trial."

Maduro controls other branches of government, including the military and the Supreme Court, which has already declared the National Assembly illegitimate.

Also on Tuesday, the government released four imprisoned opposition activists. The opposition responded that the four should never have been jailed and accused the government of taking prisoners just to release them later for political points.


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