CARACAS, Venezuela, Dec. 20 (UPI) -- Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro signaled he wants to raise gasoline prices, which are considered among the cheapest in the world at about 5 cents a gallon.
"Without a doubt there's a distortion that we need to correct," Maduro said Wednesday, in reference to the country's highly subsidized gasoline. His comments came during a rare meeting with opposition political leaders, the Wall Street Journal reports.
While the government should continue offering "special" prices for the domestic market, the president said, the subsidy "should be an advantage, not a disadvantage."
The gasoline subsidy costs Venezuela about $12.5 billion a year.
The president spoke of a "plan that should take us some three years for setting prices of hydrocarbons and their derivatives in the national market."
Maduro added it should be a "progressive plan with national consensus."
Violent riots erupted the last time the Venezuelan government made cuts in fuel subsidies, in 1989, under President Carlos Andres Perez.
Maduro also said a plan to raise gasoline prices should not increase inflation.
Venezuela's inflation is currently around 54 percent, which is one of the highest rates in the world.
Extra revenue from gasoline sales could be used to fund social programs such as a state housing initiative, business loans and benefits for the elderly, Maduro said.
J.P. Morgan in a report last week said the Venezuelan president has a "golden opportunity" to move forward with steps such as raising gasoline prices, citing a strong showing for Maduro's allies in municipal elections this month and with the next elections still two years away.
Venezuela has the second-largest natural gas reserves in the Western Hemisphere and ranks as one of the top suppliers of oil to the United States.
Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, who is also president of the country's state-owned energy company Petroleos de Venezuela, known as PDVSA, in a televised news conference earlier this week acknowledged in addition to losses from the subsidies, Venezuela's low-cost gasoline is smuggled to neighboring Colombia and sold at market prices, amounting to losses of nearly 100,000 barrels a day.
Noting a bottle of water costs about the same as 19 gallons of gasoline, Ramirez said Venezuela "is the country with the cheapest gasoline in the world, it's not a point of pride ... it makes no sense."
Even the late President Hugo Chavez had once remarked in a 2009 episode of his "Alo Presidente" television show: "One day, we have to adjust those prices. We're practically giving away gasoline."