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Ford suspends vehicle output in Venezuela

CARACAS (Reuters) -- Ford Motor Co. was forced to halt vehicle assembly operations in Venezuela on Monday due to a lack of foreign currency to import parts for assembly, workers at its plant said.

Like other private businesses in Venezuela, carmakers have been complaining that the socialist government's currency controls are preventing them from importing essential products due to restrictions and delays in purchases of dollars.

Workers, who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity, said the plant in the central city of Valencia would be idled until the end of May.

Transport Minister Haiman El Troudi confirmed the stoppage at the plant but said it should reopen in two weeks after a meeting between Ford representatives and government officials that resolved some "critical bottlenecks."

The minister said state currency board Cencoez would release $20 million in debt to Ford this week.

Toyota Motor Corp. halted vehicle assembly in Venezuela in February for the same reasons.

Venezuela's struggling auto industry saw first-quarter production fall 76 percent to just 3,424 vehicles, compared with 14,316 units in the same period of 2013, according to national automakers' organization Cavenez.

Ford assembled only 499 cars in the country in the first three months of 2014.

Automobiles are just one sector of many where President Nicolas Maduro's government is facing pressure to release more dollars for imports. He says unscrupulous businessmen exaggerate needs in order to flip dollars on the black market for profit.

But nevertheless ministers are holding urgent meetings with business heads to try and resolve problems and help reverse the slide in local production.

Venezuela operates three exchange controls -- at 6.3 bolivars per dollar for preferential goods, and at around 11 and 50 for other sectors via two Central Bank mechanisms.

The dollar is trading at about 66-68 bolivars on the black market, according to illegal Web sites that track it.

General Motors, Mitsubishi Motors Corp., and Fiat Chrysler also have assembly plants in Venezuela.

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