(Adds details on gasoline price hikes, Petrocaribe)
By Davide Scigliuzzo
NEW YORK, Jan 23 (IFR) - Venezuela has already set aside funds to pay a EUR1bn bond maturing in March, the country's Finance Minister Rodolfo Marco Torres told a group of international investors this week, according to a person who attended the meetings.
Weakening fiscal accounts in the face of plunging oil prices have left recession-hit Venezuela, which has a 7% EUR1bn bond due on March 16, scrambling to raise funding abroad to stave off fears of a potential default.
"Torres reiterated their willingness to pay and honor their commitments," said the investor, who took part in a series of meetings in Caracas organized by Bank of America Merrill Lynch.
The euro-denominated bond is part of around US$10bn of principal and interest payments the sovereign and state-owned oil company PDVSA must service this year.
"(Torres) didn't say whether the funds would come out of Treasury or (central bank) reserves, but he said (the March maturity) will be paid," the investor said. "That was a loud and clear message."
Addressing one of the most contentious issues in the country, Torres recognized the need to raise domestic gasoline prices, according to the investor, but did not provide a timeline for a potential hike.
"He said that if it were up to him it would be tomorrow," said the investor. "My sense is that this might happen sooner rather than later."
Torres also reiterated the government's commitment to the Petrocaribe agreement, through which Venezuela provides oil at preferential terms to a number of Caribbean and Central American nations. Torres said the 10-year program will not be dismantled, said the investor.
The downsizing or the elimination of the Petrocaribe agreement is seen as one of the easiest options for Venezuela to increase cash reserves.
Torres provided scant details about the country's planned overhaul of its three-tier foreign exchange system, saying the new Sicad rate will be rolled out in February.
"The new foreign exchange regime is still a question mark. We still need to see how all this is going to work," the investors said. (Reporting by Davide Scigliuzzo; Editing by Paul Kilby)