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Brother, Can You Spare 500 Bolvares?

Three hundred dollars didn't seem an inordinate amount of money to change to Venezuela's currency, the bolvar, given that I would be in the country with Latin America's highest inflation for about a week - taking taxis, eating out, buying newspapers.

But I started to have my doubts when the teller at the Caracas airport money exchange window handed over stacks and stacks of bundled bills in exchange for my three crisp Ben Franklins. I suddenly felt like a money launderer or fed-up international investor as I stuffed the loot into my briefcase, and I must have looked stupefied.

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"Sorry," the teller offered, "the 500-notes [worth about 85 cents] are the biggest we have."

When I reached my hotel, I had to count out 34 of the 500-bolvar notes to settle with the cabbie.

Now I learn with great relief that Venezuela's central bank plans to revamp its currency denominations. As of January the 5,000-bolvar note (worth about $8.50) will cease being the largest bill. Notes of 10,000, 20,000, and 50,000 bolvares will also be put into circulation.

The bolvar, the bank says, has lost about 80 percent of its buying power just since the end of 1996. When Venezuelans need a fistful of bills to buy an ice cream, the bolvar has become a constant reminder of the day when 100 bolvares meant something.

It's too early to tell if simply ratcheting the denomination of bolvar notes upward will cool Venezuelans' wrath over the country's dire economic straits.

But at least visitors like me won't feel they need an armed guard - or an extra suitcase - to carry their cash.

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