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Toyota Venezuela slams brakes on vehicle assembly, irks president

By Andrew Cawthorne

CARACAS, Feb 10 (Reuters) - Toyota Motor Corp plans to halt vehicle assembly in Venezuela this week despite a rebuke over the weekend from socialist President Nicolas Maduro and a demand for talks with the Japanese automaker's top executives.

The move by the world's No. 1 automaker would appear to bring vehicle production to a standstill, given it made almost all the units produced in Venezuela in January, according to the local automobile chamber.

Like other private businesses in Venezuela, carmakers are complaining that the socialist government's currency controls are preventing them from importing essential products.

An official at Toyota Venezuela, who asked not to be named, confirmed on Monday that its assembly plant in the eastern state of Sucre would be temporarily shut from Thursday.

"We are in an extremely difficult situation, for different reasons beyond our control, which affect operational continuity, due to shortage of parts," said a Toyota internal memo published by local media and confirmed by the official.

"There will be an indefinite production stoppage," it added, saying workers' salaries would be guaranteed for two weeks.

At the weekend, an angry Maduro accused the company's local representatives of exaggerating problems for political reasons. He ordered his industry minister to reach out to Toyota's Latin American boss or its executives in Tokyo to discuss the matter.

"Every time there's a problem, it's the same news, Toyota's leaving. You don't have to be very intelligent to discover the political motives behind this," said Maduro.

He accuses businessmen of an "economic war" against him.

"The only thing these little managers want is dollars, dollars and more dollars," Maduro added in a speech.

"What about the productive capacity, the ability to substitute imports? Where's their capacity to make in Venezuela if they've been here 10 years? ... Aluminum, petrochemicals, iron, steel, we have it all."

Venezuela's auto industry saw January production down 85 percent to 296 units, compared to 1,945 in the same month last year, according to national automakers' organization Cavenez.

Toyota produced 291 of those units.

Venezuela's total vehicle output dropped 31 percent throughout last year to 71,763 cars.

Automobiles are just one sector of many where Maduro is facing a clamor to release more dollars for imports. He says unscrupulous businessmen are exaggerating needs in order to flip dollars on the black market for profit.

Venezuela operates two exchange controls - at 6.3 bolivars per greenback for preferential goods, and 11.3 for other sectors - but the dollar is trading at above 80 bolivars on an illegal market.