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Protests, looting break out in Venezuela amid cash chaos

Saturday, December 17, 2016, 10:56 GMT+7

Protests and looting broke out in parts of Venezuela on Friday due to a lack of cash after the government suddenly pulled the nation's largest banknote from circulation in the midst of a brutal economic crisis.

Waving the now-worthless 100-bolivar bills, pockets of demonstrators blocked roads, demanded that stores accept the cash and cursed President Nicolas Maduro, witnesses said.

Shops were looted in various places.

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

Opposition leaders said the move was further evidence that Maduro is destroying the OPEC nation's economy and must be removed.

With new bills - originally due on Thursday - still nowhere to be seen, many Venezuelans were unable to fill their vehicles' fuel tanks to get to work, buy food or purchase Christmas gifts.

Adding to the chaos, many cash machines were broken or empty. And, large lines formed outside the central bank offices in Caracas and Maracaibo where the 100-bolivar bills could still be handed over and deposited for a few days more.

'Mockery'

"This is a mockery," said bus driver Richard Montilva as he and several hundred 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 that did not calm nervousness on the streets.

The arrival 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 reporters.

Outside the central bank in Caracas, thousands of Venezuelans lined up to swap the 100-bolivar bills before a final Tuesday deadline as National Guard soldiers kept watch.

An orange and avocado vendor offered to buy the notes up for 80 bolivars each.

Maduro's measure has stoked anger among Venezuelans already weary of long lines for food and medicine amid product shortages and triple-digit inflation.

Six businesses in Bolivar were looted on Friday after stores refused to accept the soon-to-be defunct bills, said El Callao's mayor, Coromoto Lugo, who belongs to the opposition. There were similar reports in several other towns.

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.

REUTERS

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