By Alexandra Ulmer and Eyanir Chinea
CARACAS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday new higher-denomination bills were ready, but they were still nowhere to be seen on the streets where Venezuelans with envelopes, backpacks or even suitcases stood in long queues to deposit 100-bolivar bills before they become worthless.
Maduro surprised the inflation-wrought country on Sunday by announcing that he was yanking the 100-bolivar bill, Venezuela's largest, to crack down on Colombian mafias he says are hoarding bolivars to fuel contraband and sabotage his leftist administration.
New bills were due to be phased into Venezuela's ailing economy on Thursday. But in a surreal twist, cash machines continued to give out 100-bolivar notes, frustrating Venezuelans who had scrambled to spend or deposit the bills - worth only 4 U.S. cents on the black market amid a steep currency depreciation.
Maduro, a former bus driver whose popularity has plummeted in hand with the economic crisis, praised Venezuelans for their understanding during a televised speech on Thursday night and said the new bills were already being distributed and would be fully in circulation by January.
"This is a big effort we’re doing to tackle so many evils and tricks. ... We’re burning the hands of the mafia," said Maduro, flashing the new notes, which include a coral-colored 20,000-bolivar bill with the image of 19th century liberation hero Simon Bolivar.
Economists, however, have said the measure is economically nonsensical and does nothing to tackle Venezuela's deep economic imbalances and excessive money printing. Many have warned that the country of 30 million could be thrown into further currency chaos due to the measure's sloppy timing, uncertainty and lack of cash.
Maduro had said Venezuelans would have until Dec. 25 to turn in 100-bolivar bills at the central bank, but on Thursday he said he had shortened that timeframe to Dec. 20.
He also said border crossings with Colombia and Brazil would remain closed for another 72 hours to squeeze smuggling gangs, a measure likely to inflict pain on Venezuelans who cross the borders daily to buy food and medicine, work or visit family.
Many Venezuelans, already subject to long lines for flour, rice or bread amid biting shortages, have seethed at Maduro’s currency measure, which further complicates their lives ahead of Christmas.
Some have written insults to Maduro on the bills. The opposition-led National Assembly on Thursday had posters that equated Maduro's Socialist Party with the 100-bolivar bill, adding the line: “Nobody wants them.”
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Leslie Adler)