By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela's plan to create an oil-backed cryptocurrency faces the same credibility problems that dog the ruling Socialist Party in financial markets and is unlikely to fare any better than the struggling OPEC member itself, investors and technical experts say.
President Nicolas Maduro on Sunday floated a plan to create the "petro" that would be backed by the world's largest crude reserves, amid a crippling economic crisis worsened by U.S. sanctions that limit Venezuela's capacity to borrow money.
Cryptocurrencies rely on confidence in clear rules and equal treatment of all involved, three experts said, adding that Venezuela was widely seen as flouting basic property rights and mismanaging its existing bolivar currency.
Without such confidence, the "petro" would neither help Venezuela raise funds nor help it avoid sanctions levied by U.S. President Donald Trump's administration.
"If any government is willing to set up a fair set of rules for a cryptocurrency, it would be a great thing," said Sean Walsh of Redwood City Ventures, a bitcoin and blockchain-focused investment firm.
"But if an administration has a history of unfair treatment of the population, then tacking on a buzzword like 'cryptocurrency' isn't going to change that behaviour."
The Information Ministry did not respond to requests for comment. In further comments on Tuesday, Maduro said Venezuela's new virtual currency would be backed by oil from the heavy-crude Orinoco Belt, plus gold and diamonds.
Bitcoin, the world's most popular cryptocurrency, has soared in recent weeks to nearly $12,000 <BTC=BTSP> in what detractors call evidence of a bubble but supporters insist is the start of a new monetary system not dependent on central banks.
Venezuela's inflation is expected to top 1,000 percent this year, driven by unchecked expansion of the money supply and a currency control system that critics say provides favourable treatment to well-connected officials and business people at the expense of everyday citizens.
'DO WE TRUST VENEZUELA?'
Under the 15-year-old foreign exchange regime, state agencies receive dollars to import food and medicine at a rate of 10 bolivars, while private citizens now pay more than 108,000 per greenback on the black market. The black market rate has depreciated more than 99 percent under Maduro.
Basic food and medical items are increasingly out of reach for most citizens, fuelling malnutrition and preventable diseases. Maduro says the country is the victim of an "economic war" led by political adversaries with the support of Washington.
Maduro has not outlined the rules that would govern the proposed currency, including what rights its holders would have over Venezuela's oil reserves.
"The fact that the bolivar's value has plummeted shows that people have very little faith in Venezuela," said Yazan Barghuthi of Jibrel Network, a blockchain development firm.
"A tokenised asset will still have the same problem: Do we trust the institution that is backing this to fulfil the promises that this token represents?"
U.S. sanctions, in response to accusations of human rights violations and the undermining of democracy, have effectively blocked the country from issuing new debt and have made global banks increasingly wary of working with Venezuela.
But Venezuela is unlikely to find foreign companies willing to accept payment for food or medicine in newly minted petros and has little chance of convincing creditors to accept them in lieu of dollars when making payments on its distressed bonds, the experts said.
"Given that there is no stable judicial system in Venezuela, no one will trust anything that the government claims is backed by assets of any kind," wrote Marshall Swatt, founder of bitcoin exchange Coinsetter, in an email.
"Even if the technology were proper and prevented government meddling (impossible to imagine), it is dead on arrival."
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago; Editing by Lisa Shumaker and Peter Cooney)