Many Venezuelans rejected an opposition call for a national strike today, warily going to work even as sweeping government measures aimed at curbing hyperinflation caused mounting confusion.

With inflation hurtling toward 1 million per cent and hunger spreading nationwide, President Nicolás Maduro at the weekend outlined a radical plan intended to break the cycle. Among the changes: Officially devaluing the currency by about 90 per cent and hiking the minimum wage by 3000 per cent.

By today, one measure in the government's offensive - the erasing of five zeros from bolívar notes - had already started its rollout.

In Caracas, the capital, both the new and old currencies were being accepted in outdoor marketplaces and stores. Under the change, the highest bolívar bill - previously 100,000 - is now 10.


In a news conference, opposition leader Andrés Velásquez estimated that 60 per cent of private-sector workers participated in the strike throughout the country.

"It's only the first step of a series of protests that will end with a call for a general strike that lasts indefinitely," he said.

Yet Maduro's opposition is divided and weakened, and there were signs that the calls for the strike were not being heeded. In Caracas, some stores closed while their owners tried to calculate new prices. But most supermarkets, bakeries and shopping centres were operating.

There were reports of wider participation in the strike in some cities - but analysts said that many stores were closing less out of protest and more out of confusion over what prices to charge. Experts cited a lack of coordination and flagging faith in the opposition, as well as fears of government reprisals, as reasons for the limited impact of the action.

"Their call was too rushed and confusing," said Félix Seijas, a political analyst and director of the Delphos polling agency. "The opposition leadership is being questioned and not trusted right now, and they didn't coordinate with other sectors before making the announcement."

With economists saying the new economic measures could make a bad situation even worse, people rushed to supermarkets and service stations to stock up on necessities, while some business owners considered closing for good.

People lined up to get the new bolívar bills at ATMs, where daily withdrawals are limited to barely enough to buy three dozen eggs. At stores, shoppers stared, befuddled, at prices marked in both old and new bolívares.

"I will just have to pay and then get home and figure out how much I actually spent," said Zoraya Mago, a 60-year-old chef at a supermarket in eastern Caracas.

A woman waits in a public transportation line in Caracas.
A woman waits in a public transportation line in Caracas.

Under the devaluation plan, Maduro announced that 3600 new bolívares would now equal one petro, a digital currency he created in February, which US Treasury Department officials have called a scam. One petro equals the price of a barrel of oil, or about US$60. So one dollar, under his plan, would equal about 60 new bolívares or 6 million old ones.

That represents a 90 per cent devaluation from the previous official exchange rate. But that rate was accessible only by state entities. In effect, the devaluation is meant to bring the official exchange rate closer to its value on the black market.

There were early signs that the plan had failed to stabilise the economy.

Before Maduro's announcement, for instance, a kilo of peaches cost about 1.1 million bolívares. By today, prices had almost doubled, surging to 2.1 million old bolívares, or 21 new ones.

The black market rate for the dollar was roughly between 7 million and 8 million bolívares - a figure that surged to about 14 million old bolívares, or 140 new ones, today.

Victor Flores, 56, a manager at a carwash in a part of Caracas that was long an opposition stronghold, said he never considered taking part in the strike.

"We don't believe in the opposition anymore," he said. "We're living a terrible situation, and they have never been strong enough in their response."

The carwash, he said, would most likely have to dismiss employees to continue operating after the government-mandated salary hikes, which are scheduled to start in less than two weeks.

"There's too much confusion, and the way prices are rising is alarming," he said. "We're fearful of what's coming for us."