Venezuela runs up $1 bln debt for late shipping containers
By Corina Pons and Jonathan Saul
PUERTO CABELLO, Venezuela/LONDON, April 22 (Reuters) - V enezuelan state agencies have run up close to $1 billion in debts with shipping firms due to delays in returning containers, potentially boosting the cost of importing staple goods as the country struggles with product shortages and an economic crisis.
The agencies have held containers for months or simply never returned them, at times leaving the truck-sized steel boxes for years in oil industry facilities or on provincial farms even though this costs $100 per day per container, according to industry sources.
The debts have piled up over the last six years, coinciding with a steady rise in the role of state agencies in importing goods to Venezuela, particularly food. The country is served by industry giants such as Maersk of Denmark and Hamburg Sud of Germany.
The container debts put shipping lines on a long list of industries ranging from international airlines to telecommunications giants that have complained of being unable to collect on billions of dollars in unpaid Venezuelan bills.
Like these groups, it is unclear if shipping firms will ever be able to recover the debt. But it adds to the risks for shipping companies serving the Venezuelan market. Freight rates to Venezuela have risen to become among the highest in region, and in some cases are three times higher than other South American destinations, according to documents seen by Reuters.
That higher cost creates an additional difficulty for President Nicolas Maduro's government, which is struggling with triple-digit inflation and chronic product shortages reminiscent of the former Soviet Union.
Government agencies including the Food Ministry and state oil company PDVSA, which is involved in food imports, did not respond to requests for comment.
Venezuela's shipping industry association last year estimated the debt at $817 million for containers that were not returned or returned late. The figure has now topped $1 billion, according to an industry source with first-hand knowledge of situation who asked not to be identified. Continuación...