CARACAS, Venezuela — Saul Jimenez just wanted to buy bread from his neighborhood bakery in Venezuela’s capital Monday. It did not go well.

Banks and most other businesses were closed for the day as Venezuela launched a series of dramatic economic reforms, beginning with the release of a currency with five fewer zeros in a bid to tame soaring inflation.

Rampant inflation means it would take a fistful of bills to pay for a loaf of bread, so many Venezuelans like Jimenez rely on bank cards.

But with banks closed to reset their systems for the change, Jimenez’s cards wouldn’t work – in a scene that played out across Caracas.

“It wasn’t just mine. Others’ didn’t work either,” said the attorney, who left the bakery empty-handed and frustrated. “Neither the debit card nor the credit card.”

The currency conversion is among the less controversial parts of President Nicolas Maduro’s economic plan. He’ll next raise the minimum wage by more than 3,000 percent and increase gasoline prices – now less than a penny to fill up – to international levels.


Critics say the package of measures will only make the economic crisis worse.

Opposition leaders are seizing on tension among residents, calling for a nationwide strike and protest Tuesday. They hope to draw masses into the streets against Maduro’s socialist ruling party – something they’ve failed to do in over a year.

The closed banks spent Monday preparing to release the new currency: the “sovereign bolivar.” Maduro’s government says it will raise gasoline prices in late September to curtail rampant smuggling across borders. The dramatically higher minimum wage will go into effect starting Sept. 1.

Economists say the package of measures is likely to accelerate hyperinflation rather than address its core economic troubles, like oil production plunging to levels last seen in 1947.

As Maduro declared Monday a national holiday, Caracas was quiet with most store fronts closed for business.

Other banking activities shut down for about 12 hours to allow for a transition to the new currency. Most banks Monday reactivated their online services and ATMs, but some customers complained of troubles.

The impact of the currency conversion won’t be known until Tuesday.

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