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By Deisy Buitrago
CARACAS (Reuters) - At least five Venezuelan newspapers have temporarily stopped publishing in recent weeks for lack of paper, the latest of a string of shortages that threaten to hurt the socialist government's popularity.
Bigger titles say they could face problems if tight currency rules mean restrictions on imports continue, while many other smaller publications have cut back their number of pages.
"Out of paper, we'll be back," read one notice this week on the front page of El diario de Sucre, a regional newspaper in the northeast of the country, the day it stopped printing.
Venezuelans suffer sporadic absences of goods ranging from flour to toilet paper and motorcycle parts, partly due to a decade of currency controls put in place by the late socialist leader Hugo Chavez and continued by his hand-picked successor, President Nicolas Maduro.
The new shortage has hit smaller newspapers hardest, but even the bigger and better-funded titles say they could face problems as importers have difficulty finding dollars to buy key raw materials that also include ink and printing equipment.
"The situation is most critical for the small newspapers in the interior, because they don't import paper directly," Miguel Henrique Otero, editor of the pro-opposition El Nacional newspaper, told Reuters.
"They buy from paper distributors ... who are not among the priorities" when the authorities allocate hard currency to businesses, he said.
His newspaper and the country's other large titles - El Universal, Ultimas Noticias and Panorama - were alright for now, he said, but that could change if the problems for importers continued.
There was no immediate response from the government's information ministry to a request for comment on the newsprint shortage.
Despite the avid adoption of new technologies by Venezuelans, ranging from Twitter to instant messaging applications, newspapers remain a mainstay of their news consumption.
The private sector - squeezed by state takeovers during Chavez's 14-year rule - says delays, red tape and uncertainty over the supply of dollars have delayed imports.
Maduro has revamped a central bank-run auction system that has provided some dollars to businesses and individuals, at an exchange rate higher than the official level of 6.3 bolivars to the greenback.
He has also said officials may relaunch another exchange system to run in parallel in the hope of quickly arriving at "an optimum balance point" for the economy.
Meanwhile, the bolivar sells on the illegal black market for more than five times the official rate.
FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION
While a handful of local newspapers such as El diario de Sucre have temporarily stopped printing, others have cut back on their number of pages as the shortages take effect.
For critics of Maduro, who narrowly won an election in April after Chavez's death from cancer, the pressures on some local newspapers is tantamount to his administration cracking down on freedom of expression, which is something the government denies.
To win priority access to dollars, it helps importers to have a license to show they are buying products that are not made in Venezuela - in this case, paper to print newspapers.
"People will inevitably think the import license is being used intentionally to gag (critics of the government)," said Claudio Paolillo, an official at the Miami-based Inter American Press Association (IAPA), which represents newspapers throughout the region.
During his time in power, Chavez had a tense relationship with Venezuela's private media. He frequently accused them of seeking to undermine his rule, while he was routinely labeled as anti-democratic and a dictator by pro-opposition commentators.
Since Maduro, a former bus driver-turned-foreign minister, took office five months ago, the media landscape has changed.
Investors identified by local media as individuals close to the government bought and effectively neutered TV station Globovision, once the most high profile platform for opposition voices, and the largest private media conglomerate, Cadena Capriles.
Critics of the government say the shortage of paper is now being felt across the whole publishing industry. Otero, the El Nacional editor, said inventories of magazine paper were critically low, and that the situation for books was worse.
"We are the main private editors of books in Venezuela and we have 40 books waiting in a queue because we can't print them because there's no paper," he said.
(Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by Brian Ellsworth and Chris Reese)