U.S. Markets close in 13 mins

Venezuela exports $456 mln in gold to Switzerland amid cash crisis

CARACAS, March 22 (Reuters) - Venezuela exported about 443 million Swiss francs ($456 million) worth of gold to Switzerland in February, data showed on Tuesday, as the South American country's central bank carried out swaps to receive cash due to a biting economic crisis.

Details of the data published by the Swiss customs bureau were not immediately clear, though Venezuela's central bank's president in February confirmed to Reuters it had been carrying out gold swaps.

"It's normal, all central banks do this," said Nelson Merentes, adding that the operations have time frames of three to four years with multiple banks, which he did not identify.

"As part of our strategy, the (central bank's) board of directors has decided to carry out swaps."

The OPEC country is suffering from a severe recession, triple-digit inflation and chronic product shortages. The government's currency control system has slashed approval of dollars for product imports, leading to empty store shelves and snaking supermarket lines.

The bank has begun negotiations with Deutsche Bank AG to carry out gold swaps to improve liquidity of its foreign reserves as it faces heavy debt payments this year, two sources familiar with the talks told Reuters last month.

Separately, a source said last month that Venezuela's central bank has taken an unspecified amount of gold out of the country so it can be certified, which is required for gold that is used in such swaps. The gold lost its "certificate of good delivery" in 2011 when late President Hugo Chavez transferred it from foreign banks to central bank coffers, one of the sources said.

February's exports came on top of some 1.27 billion Swiss francs of gold sent to Switzerland in January, Swiss customs data showed.

Calls to Venezuela's central bank went unanswered.

($1 = 0.9706 Swiss francs) (Reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Corina Pons; Editing by Dan Grebler)