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Venezuela Faces Looming Beer Shortage in Dispute with Nation’s Biggest Brewer

Polar makes 80 percent of the beer consumed in Venezuela, but a standoff with the socialist government threatens to stop the flow of booze to the country's consumers, the latest looming shortage to affect the country.
Imagen por Ariana Cubillos/AP

Venezuela's largest food distributor on Thursday denounced the government occupation of a Caracas warehouse amid accusations that the company is hoarding goods.

Soldiers took over the warehouse complex used by Empresas Polar late Wednesday just as Venezuela's federation of brewers announced that Polar's beer manufacturing subsidiary is shutting two of its six plants because of a lack of imported barley — a crucial ingredient in beer.


The South American oil-exporting nation is grappling with chronic shortages of all kinds of staples from sugar to toilet paper, which businesses blame on the socialist government's economic policies.

President Nicolas Maduro has accused Polar of sabotaging the economy by hoarding goods and intentionally creating shortages. The company denies the charges.

As December congressional elections approach, Maduro has been levying frequent attacks on sectors that he claims are staging an economic war against Venezuelans. Workers said the takeover was intended to provide land for new houses, another resource that has become scarce in Caracas in recent years, pushing people to live in shacks in the hills outside the city.

Polar executive Manuel Felipe Larrazabal asked the administration to reconsider the occupation, saying it had already paralyzed the company's supply chain in the capital.

"We're not questioning the desire to build homes, which are so necessary, but we wonder why there is this need to disrupt active industrial facilities," Larrazabal told the Associated Press on Thursday.

Meanwhile, chaos spread at a warehouse in the southern community of San Felix early on Friday, after rumor spread that the place had milk, coffee, rice, and other goods in storage. Dozens of people stormed the facility, resulting in the death of one man and the detention to at least 60 people, reports said.

Related: A Condom Shortage Is Altering People's Sex Lives in Venezuela


 A customer drinks a Polar beer outside of a liquor store in downtown Caracas, Venezuela, July 28, 2015. (Photo by Fernando Llano/AP)

Venezuela's ministry of housing declined to comment on the takeover of the complex, which is also used by several large companies, including PepsiCo Inc. and Nestle.

Some of the 650 employees that Polar said work at the warehouse protested against the seizure as armed police looked on. Government supporters staged a counter-demonstration outside the complex. By nightfall, the crowds had mostly gone home.

It has been a rough couple of weeks for Polar, a beer brand that is as common in Venezuela as Budweiser or Corona might be in the United States.

In addition to the beer plant closures, which the brewers' federation said could affect a quarter of domestic beer production, Polar has also been embroiled in a dispute with unionized workers demanding pay raises.

Members of some of the dozens of unions representing Polar workers have limited distribution of the small bottles of light beer that are favored in Venezuela. While there are no signs of shortages on shelves so far, the company says it is struggling to get deliveries to the central part of the country.

Earlier this month, the head of Venezuela liquor store federation warned that the nation was about to run out of beer because brewers had reached "zero hour" amid widespread shortages in raw materials. Days later, he was detained for reasons that remain unclear.

On Thursday, residents of the humble homes around the warehouse complex came out to show support for Polar and its employees.

Luis Ignacio Moreno said the housing situation is dire, but there is no need to pit one group's needs against another's. "I want them to build, but not to drive Polar out. That's where a lot of my neighbors work," he told AP.

Beer isn't the only product in dire straits in Venezuela. The country is also suffering chronic shortages of sugar, medicines, toilet paper, and condoms, which businesses blame on the socialist government's economic policies.

Related: Venezuela's Currency Has Taken a Nosedive

The Associated Press contributed to this report.