ReutersWashington Post June 12, 2008CARACAS (Reuters) - President Hugo Chavez left Venezuela in the dark about his new finance minister, failing to name his pick during an hours-long speech late on Wednesday, which he had said he would use to announce his choice.
The El Nacional newspaper reported before the economic speech the leftist had selected a low-profile central bank director, Jose Rivas, to replace Rafael Isea, who will leave the post to run for regional elected office later this year.
A senior official familiar with the decision-making had also told Reuters that earlier this week it appeared highly likely Rivas would receive the nod, but Chavez's silence raised doubts over who his economy chief -- the ninth since 1999 -- will be.
Last week, economists had focused on two former finance ministers, Nelson Merentes and Jose Rojas. While investors typically study closely a change of finance minister in emerging markets, economists expect little policy impact from a new minister in Venezuela due to limits on the post's influence.
Ver opciones avanzadasThe president is the major decision-maker, and the planning minister is nominally the Cabinet's head of economic policy and influences strategy. Former economy ministers are believed to still advise Chavez on the portfolio, they say.
Still, the lack of confirmation led to Kremlinology-like analysis of the seating arrangements at Chavez's speech for clues as to who appeared to be given special prominence.
A vice finance minister, Alejandro Andrade, was seated near the front. Asked by Reuters if Chavez had tapped him for the top job, he declined to comment because officials were not authorized to speak about it until the president's announcement. Rivas also declined comment.
If they hold ambitions for the position, avoiding the spotlight may be wise. A few years ago, Francisco Faraco was economists' favorite to be central bank chief. But after he went public telling reporters Chavez had asked him if he wanted the post, the president changed his mind and picked someone else.
The outgoing finance minister, who joined the Cabinet only at the start of this year, oversaw a policy that slashed the bolivar currency rate on the parallel exchange market and helped cut periodic shortages of some basic foodstuffs.
But economic growth also slowed to its weakest rate since 2003 and inflation remains the highest in Latin America as Chavez struggles to deliver the benefits of an oil price boom to Venezuelans during an election year.
In a mild bid to revitalize the economy, Chavez used his speech on Wednesday to eliminate a tax on financial transactions and loosen currency controls.
(Reporting by Patricia Rondon; Writing by Saul Hudson, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)