Venezuela's leftist government is blaming supermarket and pharmacy barons for worsening the crippling shortages of staple goods like diapers, medicine, cooking oil, sugar, and flour that are inconveniencing and infuriating its citizens.
Officials announced the takeover of 35 Día a Día grocery stores throughout the South American country on Tuesday, claiming the chain's greedy owners were hoarding groceries, according to Venezuelan daily El Universal. National Guard troops were dispatched to at least two stores in the capital of Caracas.
The move came after Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced that the SEBIN, the country's intelligence agency, apprehended several executives of a big pharmacy chain — later identified as Farmatodo — on allegations that they had conspired to create the spectacle of hundreds of people lining up for scarce goods to embarrass his administration and foster a counterrevolution.
"I imprisoned several conspirators, shopkeepers," Maduro said on Sunday, according to Panorama, another Venezuelan daily. "I asked the office of the prosecutor to expedite all charges so they are well imprisoned and cease sabotaging the Venezuelan people."
Both actions reflect how Venezeula's economy has tanked as the price of oil has lost around half its price since the summer, Michael Coppedge, a University of Notre Dame political scientist who specializes in Venezuelan politics, told VICE News.
"The last two governments have put all of their eggs in the oil basket and have put a lot of obstacles in the path of the private sector," he said, referring to Maduro and his late predecessor, Hugo Chavez, an unabashed opponent of American-style capitalism who cracked down on free enterprise and spent Venezuela's vast oil wealth on social welfare programs and the state security apparatus.
Store shelves in Venezuela are today increasingly bare, recalling the experience of shoppers in communist countries in the run-up to the collapse of the Soviet Union. The sight has inspired the popular hashtag #AnaquelesVaciosEnVenezuela ("#EmptyShelvesInVenezuela").
Scarcity is expected to grow even more severe. The International Monetary Fund estimated recently that the country's economy will contract by 7 percent this year — the worst slowdown in Latin America. Venezuela slipped into recession early last year.
Día a Día didn't respond to the takeover publicly. Farmatodo released a statement to the press noting that its operations were "known and transparent," and that its executives were cooperating with authorities.
Coppedge doubted the government's characterization of the supermarket and pharmacy owners as cigar-smoking fat cats seeking to upend the utopian aims of Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian Revolution.
Venezuela makes it hard for merchants to acquire the American dollars necessary to import goods like diapers, drugs, and basic cooking ingredients, he said. The country doesn't produce those goods itself, and few if any sellers will accept Venezuela's currency, the bolivar, so without dollars they can't import them.
Venezuela has also imposed price controls, so merchants often can't charge enough to turn a profit on goods they can find. That gives them little incentive to stock their shelves.
Coppedge acknowledged that Venezuelan merchants often compensate by selling goods on the black market, but he's not sure Día a Día or Farmatodo were doing anything illegal. Instead, he suspected that the takeovers were a power grab by desperate Venezuelan politicians.
"The government is trying to blame everyone else for its problems," Coppedge said. "And the government benefits from it by having a pretext to seize control of these commercial chains. President Chavez did this before. He would point to shortages and expropriate or to take control of private enterprises."
Gladys Mora, a 53-year-old Venezuelan homemaker who lives in a low-income district of Caracas, told Reuters that she and her neighbors are concerned less with politics than they are with eating and taking care of their families.
"What we're worried about is that there's nothing to buy," she said.
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