CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s economy expanded around 15% last year, President Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday during his annual state of the nation address, crediting the expansion to diversification of the largely oil-focused economy.

The South American country’s economy grew 17.73% year-over-year in the first three quarters of 2022, its central bank said in December, following an eight-year economic collapse.

The country has seen extended economic hardship under its largely state-controlled model, prompting more than 7 million people to migrate.

“Venezuela has had growth in 2022 above 15% of gross domestic product, the best growth in Latin America and the Caribbean,” Maduro told lawmakers, ministers and other guests during an hours-long speech, thanking business people and entrepreneurs for their efforts.

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Maduro’s government, facing U.S. sanctions, relaxed private sector regulations in 2019 to allow more foreign currency inflows.

While the move helped some industries, annual inflation remains high – hitting some 37% in December according to a non-governmental group – and many Venezuelans struggle to afford food and other basic items.

The government and state-run firms like oil company PDVSA had begun paying some suppliers in dollars to cut expenses in bolivars and reduce inflation. But the government fell behind on payments at the end of 2022 amid dwindling income in the foreign currency.

Maduro reiterated his frequent call for the United States to lift sanctions, saying “imperialism and its lackeys” cost the Venezuelan economy $411 million a day, though he did not provide evidence for that figure.

“We have learned to do much more with less over these years. We are going to see Venezuela’s economic results for 2022, but the impact of sanctions remains brutal,” Maduro said. “Enough sanctions, government of Joe Biden, lift all the criminal sanctions!”

Maduro added he hopes the United States will free billions of dollars from restrictions so they can be used to fund humanitarian efforts agreed with the country’s opposition.

Venezuela’s central bank has began publishing some economic data more consistently, but has yet to resume reporting its outstanding balances.

(Reporting by Deisy Buitrago, Vivian Sequera and Mayela Armas; Writing by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Copyright 2023 Thomson Reuters.

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