Venezuela owes foreign suppliers $10 billion, business group says

Venezuela owes foreign suppliers $10 billion, business group says

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan importers and private companies have racked up arrears of around $10 billion with international suppliers due to delays in the government's allocation of hard currency, the country's main business lobby said on Wednesday.

Under the OPEC country's strict currency controls, companies and individuals apply for access to preferential dollars.

But the government body that assigns dollars has restricted allocations in the last two years amid a severe economic crisis, crimping imports and leading to mounting debts.

Umbrella business group Fedecamaras released the estimate of companies' debt to suppliers at a news conference. "The debt is the same as it was last year," said Jorge Roig, president of the group, a fierce critic of President Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.

"There is a dollar drought like never before," he added, warning that private companies' inventories were running low.

Indeed, according to two sources close to the situation, the government told the local food industry that it is limiting dollar disbursements for food imports so that it can pay down foreign debt amid low oil prices.

The drop in imports and local production have triggered shortages of basics ranging from diapers to milk, as well as medicines and spare parts for vehicles and machines.

The government blames the economic crisis on an unscrupulous business elite seeking to stoke unrest by hoarding goods and fomenting smuggling to neighboring Colombia.

"Chavistas" particularly abhor Fedecamaras as a former head of the group took power after a brief 2002 coup against the late Hugo Chavez.

Maduro on Wednesday blasted the group, saying they are "the enemy of the people."

"Fedecamaras is to blame for all the sabotage and the 'economic war' from down under," he said during a televised broadcast. "Their time is over. Our hands are no longer extended. The smiles are finished."

During near daily appearances in past days, Maduro has sworn to take a firmer hand against businesses. Economists warn a crackdown may only worsen shortages and the business climate in recession-hit Venezuela.

(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)