Venezuelans get new coins, still waiting on bills

Caracas (AFP) - New Venezuelan coins began circulating Wednesday in the capital Caracas, but long-awaited new bills had yet to arrive, prolonging the chaos unleashed by a botched currency reform.

President Nicolas Maduro is introducing new coins and bills in larger denominations as he grapples with the world's highest inflation rate.

But the leftist leader triggered riots and looting two weeks ago when he tried to pull the 100-bolivar bill from circulation before its replacement had arrived -- leaving Venezuelans desperately short of cash for food and Christmas presents.

Ten days after the new currency was supposed to be launched, the first coins were available at certain street vendors' stalls.

The 50-bolivar coins feature the bust of Simon Bolivar, a hero of Latin America's independence struggles who is idolised by Maduro and his late predecessor Hugo Chavez.

They are worth around 7.5 US cents at the highest official exchange rate.

Vendors said they had yet to see the first of the new bank notes, worth 500 bolivars, even though the central bank says several shipments have arrived.

The government plans to eventually roll out bank notes in denominations of up to 20,000 bolivars -- easing the pain of Venezuelans stuck carting around huge piles of 100-bolivar bills.

Venezuela's inflation rate, which will hit 475 percent this year, according to an IMF forecast, has gutted the value of the bolivar.

The 100-bolivar note, formerly the highest denomination, is now worth just 15 US cents at the highest official exchange rate, and a fraction of that on the black market.

Maduro alleged international "mafias" were hoarding 100-bolivar bills abroad in a US-backed conspiracy.

But after his move to pull it from circulation triggered unrest, he extended its life until January 2.

Venezuela has been rocked by low prices for its key export, oil.

Now in its third year of a deep recession, it is facing severe shortages of food, medicine and basic household goods.