By Andrew Cawthorne and Girish Gupta
CARACAS (Reuters) - Opposition leaders derided another currency devaluation by President Hugo Chavez's government as evidence of economic incompetence, while some anxious Venezuelans packed stores in fear of price increases.
Though unseen in public since cancer surgery two months ago in Cuba, government ministers said Chavez personally ordered the fifth devaluation of the bolivar in a decade of socialist economics in the OPEC nation - this time by 32 percent.
"The Maduro-Cabello duo are finishing off our Venezuela, we must not allow it!" said opposition leader Henrique Capriles, accusing Vice President Nicolas Maduro and Congress head Diosdado Cabello of squandering revenue from high oil prices.
"They spent the money on (election) campaigning, corruption and gifts abroad. What a lying government!" Capriles said on Twitter.
The measure was announced before a four-day weekend for Venezuela's Carnival holiday to minimize political or market repercussions. It had been widely forecast by economists as a way of redressing distortions including a black market rate for dollars at four times the old official level of 4.3 bolivars.
Raising the rate to 6.3 bolivars will boost state finances by providing more local currency for each dollar of oil export revenue. But it also hikes prices for imports crucial to the oil-dependent economy, potentially fueling inflation - though the state will seek to brake that using price controls.
WALL STREET PRAISE
Maduro, who is Chavez's preferred successor should his cancer force a new presidential election, said the move was needed to optimize revenues, including to fund flagship social programs that are wildly popular among Venezuela's poor.
He said the devaluation was also a response to attacks on the bolivar by capitalist "speculators," adding that more economic measures would be announced in the days ahead, in line with Chavez's instructions to ministers who visited Havana.
"Our commander-president has decided them with full consciousness and clarity ... to guarantee economic growth and diversification this year," Maduro said. "We will push ahead with the perfect plan for the people's victory."
Critics, however, flooded Twitter with mocking references to a "red package," or socialist version, of an old-style International Monetary Fund economic package hated in global leftist circles.
"The devaluation is not due to the crisis of global capitalism. It's due to the government's irresponsibility and worrying incoherence," said Ramon Aveledo, head of the opposition Democratic Unity coalition.
On Wall Street, analysts praised the move as necessary - albeit overdue - given the impact on state finances of heavy spending during Chavez's re-election campaign last year, and the soaring black market rate for the dollar.
Some calculated it would generate extra revenues equivalent to more than 3 percent of GDP.
"It is a positive development," said Goldman Sachs' Alberto Ramos. "Clearly, the economic and financial cost of waiting outweighed the political cost of the unpopular move to devalue."
The illegal rate jumped again, according to websites, immediately after the announcement. Publishing that rate is illegal in Venezuela. Some analysts predicted the government would be obliged to devalue again soon.
VENEZUELANS DEBATE MEASURE
On the streets of Caracas, ideological sparring and complicated economic calculations gave way to anxiety at the prospect of yet more price rises in an economy that for decades has suffered one of the world's highest inflation rates.
Already packing stores due to shortages of some goods, some shoppers began buying even more before prices rose.
"Things are going to cost more in a week. That's why I've got all this," said bank teller Elizabeth Gonzalez, 27, nodding at her trolley stuffed with groceries, bottled water, flour and cooking oil at a busy supermarket in an upmarket area.
Downtown in the emblematic Bolivar Square named for Venezuela's independence hero, and the president's idol, Simon Bolivar, 55-year-old Chavez supporter Omaira Fermin said she trusted the government to help the people.
"Salaries will rise thanks to President Chavez," she said. "There's a global financial crisis. Of course, Venezuela can't be immune to that. The problem is capitalism."
Officials have been at pains to stress that Chavez is still driving policy from his hospital in Cuba, despite Venezuelans having heard nothing from him since his December 11 operation.
They say he is improving after his fourth surgery for a cancer first diagnosed in his pelvic area in mid-2011. But there is no word on any homecoming date yet. Many Venezuelans suspect he will not be able to return to active rule.
Devaluations generally make a nation's exporters more competitive by lowering the cost of production.
But critics say the move is unlikely to contribute to a significant expansion of domestic industry because of the government's battle with the private sector, extensive price controls and sometimes uncompensated expropriations.
Venezuela's heavily-traded bonds are likely to rise on the devaluation, given the healthier picture for state coffers.
(Additional reporting Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Paul Simao)