Venezuela’s socialist government has arrested more than 100 “bourgeois” businesspeople in a crackdown on alleged price-gouging at hundreds of shops and companies since the weekend, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said on Thursday.
“They are barbaric, these capitalist parasites!” Maduro thundered in the latest of his lengthy daily speeches. “We have more than 100 of the bourgeoisie behind bars at the moment.”
The successor to former president Hugo Chavez also said his government was preparing a law to limit Venezuelan businesses’ profits to between 15 and 30 percent.
Officials say unscrupulous companies have been hiking prices of electronics and other goods more than 1,000 percent. Critics say failed socialist economic policies and restricted access to foreign currency are behind Venezuela’s runaway inflation.
“Goodyear has to lower its prices even more, 15 percent is not enough, the inspectors have to go there straightaway,” Maduro said in his evening address, sending officials to check local operations of the US-based tire manufacturer.
Since last weekend, soldiers and inspectors have gone into 1,400 shops, taken over operations at an electronics firm and a battery-making company, and rounded up a handful of looters.
The move — Maduro’s boldest since taking office in April — is reminiscent of the dramatic style of Chavez, who nationalized swaths of the OPEC member’s economy during his 14-year socialist rule.
Like Chavez, Maduro says he is defending the poor.
The inspections have shaken Venezuela three weeks before local elections on Dec. 8 that his opponents are casting as a referendum on the 50-year-old former bus driver. Maduro has made preserving Chavez’s legacy the mainstay of his government, matching his former mentor’s anti-capitalist rhetoric.
“It’s time to deepen the offensive, go to the bone in this economic war,” he said.
“We’ve reduced everything by 10 to 15 percent, but it’s not fair. I can’t make a profit now,” said the owner of one small electronics store, who asked not to be identified. “I agree they should go for the big fish, the real speculators, but they risk hurting us all.”
Venezuela’s official inflation, 54 percent annually, is the highest in the Americas.
Maduro said the forced price discounts should lead to negative inflation of 15 percent this month and 50 percent next month — forecasts that brought immediate mockery from critics on Twitter.
Around Caracas and other major cities, shoppers are flooding electronics, clothing and other outlets where price cuts are anticipated. There has been some violence.
The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflicts reported 39 incidents of looting or attempted looting since yesterday.
The campaign to reduce prices and blame entrepreneurs may play well with Maduro’s power base among the poor and could help unite factions within the United Socialist Party of Venezuela.
Plenty of Venezuelans have applauded his measures, saying price hikes were out of control, while others have expressed fears that Maduro could be uncorking dangerous forces.
Critics say the moves do not tackle the roots of Venezuela’s economic malaise, like an overvalued bolivar that forces many importers to buy black-market dollars and then pass those costs on to consumers.
Opposition party Justice First accused the state of hypocrisy, saying its stores were also hiking prices unjustifiably.
An imported sandwich toaster that costs US$34.99 in the US was selling at a fivefold markup of 1,100 bolivars (US$175 at the official exchange rate) in state supermarket chain Bicentenario, it said.
“The government created this monster and now tries to pretend it will control it, but Venezuelans cannot be deceived by this electoral show,” Justice First said.