Venezuela's government announced plans Monday to have the state oil company turn over more of its earnings in dollars to the central bank, seeking to confront shortages of some foods and other products that have worsened due to a lack of hard currency provided to importers at official rates.
Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez announced the change at a news conference, saying state-run Petroleos de Venezuela SA is to increase by nearly US$2.5 billion the amount of dollars it turns over to the central bank this year.
Ramirez said that President Hugo Chávez had supported changing the law and that is to be approved by the National Assembly, where pro-Chávez lawmakers hold the majority.
Sporadic shortages of some foods such as cooking oil and chicken have worsened recently while the government has been making available fewer dollars at the fixed exchange rate.
Since November, the government has scaled back the amount of dollars it has been providing through its currency agency to businesses and individuals.
The situation has generated growing rumours of a possible devaluation while pushing down the bolivar in street-level black market trading to less than one quarter of the official rate of 4.30 bolivars to the dollar.
Some business leaders have said that the insufficient amounts of dollars provided to businesses has led to fewer imports and worsened shortages of some foods and other products in stores.
Ramirez said the government has sufficient funds to meet the economy's needs for dollars. Oil is the lifeblood of Venezuela, accounting for most of its export earnings and helping to bankroll an economy heavily reliant on imports.
The law modifies the tax scheme for windfall oil earnings in the country, changing the formula to both free up more dollars for the central bank and reduce the amount flowing to the National Development Fund, or Fonden.
The government uses that fund for a variety of government programmes and public works projects.
Ramirez said that as a result of the changes, Fonden would be expected to receive nearly US$3 billion less this year.
The redistribution of funds will also allow PDVSA to improve its cash flow and boost investments in the oil industry, Ramirez said.
Last year, the state oil company sold US$46 billion to the central bank, Ramirez said. This year, he said, if oil prices keep to the range where they have been, the oil company should provide about US$49 billion to the central bank.
PDVSA has accumulated growing debts in recent years while Chávez has enlisted the company for additional government tasks, including food distribution and supporting social programmes.
Last year, PDVSA's debt reached US$40 billion after rising from about US$16 billion in 2007. Ramirez has insisted, despite criticisms by some market watchers, that the company has an appropriate level of debt. He said on Monday that during 2012 the oil company paid debts of more than US$15 billion.