Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government announced arrests of both store managers and looters on Sunday as part of what it calls an “economic war” in Venezuela between the socialist state and unscrupulous businesspeople.
In a major pre-Christmas campaign reminiscent of former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez’s dramatic style, Maduro has sent soldiers to “occupy” one chain of electronics stores and inspectors into scores of others to check for price-gouging.
Thousands of Venezuelans have been flocking to electronics stores, hoping to take advantage of new “fair prices” the government is imposing, sometimes half the previous cost.
However, scenes of looting on Saturday at a store belonging to the occupied electronics chain, Daka, have left many Venezuelans ashamed and fueled opposition claims that Maduro is stirring chaos rather than defending the poor.
Authorities announced that five managers, from the local Daka, JVG and Krash companies, would be prosecuted on charges of unjustified price increases after importing products with US dollars obtained at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars.
Officials have displayed for cameras televisions, washing-machines and air-conditioning units whose prices they say have been jacked up 1,000 percent or more by get-rich-quick businesspeople.
Many shop owners justify this year’s spiraling prices — annual inflation has hit 54 percent — by saying they are forced to buy greenbacks for imports on an illegal black market at nearly 10 times the official rate.
Five people accused of looting Daka’s store in the central city of Valencia have also been arrested, the Attorney General’s office said in a statement.
Some Twitter users circulated more images on Sunday of crowds and jostling outside some shops around Venezuela. However, there appeared to be no more outright looting as was seen in Valencia, where dozens of people were caught on camera running out of the Daka outlet with flat-screen TVs and boxes.
In a speech to the nation late on Sunday, Maduro promised there would be no let-up in what he called an “economic offensive” against Venezuela’s “bourgeois parasites.”
Maduro said he would use decree powers that Venezuela’s Congress is expected to grant him this week to set legal limits on businesses’ profit-margins.
Food, textile, footwear, hardware, toy and vehicle businesses would be targeted this week to check for price-gouging, Maduro said in the latest of his lengthy daily speeches, this one winding up just before midnight.
Seven months after Maduro narrowly beat opposition leader Henrique Capriles at a presidential election to replace his mentor Chavez, Venezuela is once again consumed by bitter politicking ahead of local municipal elections next month.
At the heart of the campaign is who takes the blame for the country’s economic problems: price rises that are hitting the poor majority hard despite the government’s oil-fueled subsidies and welfare programs, shortages of basic products from toilet paper to milk and a convoluted currency market.
Former bus-driver Maduro, 50, is calculating that his attacks on private businesspeople will appeal to his working-class support base.
However, critics say the government has only itself to blame for the problems due to excessive state controls, persecution of the private sector, corruption, failed nationalizations and lack of foreign currency for importers.