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Ecuadoreans struggle to make cents of switch to U.S. currency

QUITO, Ecuador — It was Manuel Jimenez's lucky day when a confused passer-by handed the street beggar $5 worth of pennies, dimes and quarters. A fistful of coins used to be worth 10 cents.

But nearby shoppers here in Ecuador's capital were hardly overjoyed trying to figure how much things cost amid the nation's conversion to U.S. dollars from their local currency, the sucre.

"With the sucre being phased out, doing business has turned into chaos,'' said Pedro Gutierrez, a merchant.

Currency confusion, for better or worse, is spreading as the impoverished nation nears the Sept. 13 target for completing the controversial switch from the sucre to the greenback.

Though recent opposition from Indians and labor groups is fading, just figuring out the math of it -- $1 equals 25,000 sucres -- is exasperating to many businesses and consumers.

More than two-thirds of people here earn less than $30 a month, making the dollar appear disproportionate to the meager means of the average Ecuadorean -- and unwieldy for most small purchases. A $20 bill currently fetches 500,000 sucres.

President Gustavo Noboa hopes the changeover, which started in March, will spur investment and bring down inflation topping 100 percent a year, the highest in Latin America.

In theory, the move to the dollar will dampen inflation by preventing Ecuador's government from printing more money to meet its budgetary needs after years of deficit spending.

Ecuador's Central Bank president, Jose Ycaza, reported in early August that 79 percent of sucre bills and 14 percent of national coins had already been pulled from circulation.

The introduction of U.S. currency -- including the temporary introduction of U.S.-minted coins -- has spawned a boom market for cardboard conversion charts, sold by street vendors for 1,000 sucres, or 4 cents.

Even with that tool as a crutch, figuring out a simple 70-cent purchase has turned into a time-consuming mental workout for people carrying both sucres and cents: two quarters, a dime, a 2,000-sucre coin, and two pennies.

Distinguishing the value of the strange foreign coins from sucres has turned into a daily preoccupation. Ecuador's Central Bank plans to soon replace the U.S. coins with its own change, to be minted in similar denominations, sizes and colors to U.S. pennies, nickels, dimes, quarters and half dollars.

By phasing out its currency, Ecuador is joining Panama and nine other countries in which the U.S. dollar is legal tender.

Opponents of the dollar plan contend it will only benefit the rich and worsen conditions for the poor by driving consumer prices up to international levels. Ecuador is cutting subsidies, mostly in fuels, to meet conditions of international lenders involved in the changeover.

Only two of every 10 Ecuadoreans have stable employment, and higher fuel costs, it is feared, could lead to price increases elsewhere in the economy.

But many analysts say it is too soon to judge the plan.

"To speak of failure is premature,'' said economist Francisco Zalles. "We have only gotten to a point where a portion of monetary resources are in dollars. Starting Sept. 13, we'll be able to talk about a dollar economy.''

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