Venezuelan soldiers have been sent into a chain of electronics stores in a campaign by President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government to stop an “economic war” of what it says are unjustified spiralling prices.
Authorities on Saturday arrested managers of the Daka chain, sent troops to occupy its five shops and forced the company to introduce cheaper prices.
That brought crowds to Daka’s shops and sparked looting at one store in the central city of Valencia.
Maduro, who accuses rich businessmen and right-wing political foes backed by the US of waging an economic war against him, said the occupation of Daka was simply the “tip of the iceberg” in a nationwide drive against speculators.
In a speech to the nation on Saturday evening, he said looting in Valencia was an isolated incident and the real criminals were unscrupulous businessmen exploiting Venezuelans with unjustified price rises.
“The ones who have looted Venezuela are you, bourgeois parasites,” Maduro said, accusing Daka of raising some prices of products beyond 1,000 percent of cost.
“We’re going to comb the whole nation in the next few days. This robbery of the people has to stop,” Maduro said. “You’ve not seen anything.”
He showed particular astonishment at a washing-machine on sale for 54,000 bolivars – $8,571 at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars to the US dollar.
Maduro’s move against Daka, after weeks of warnings of a pre-Christmas push against private businesses to keep prices down, recalled the sweeping takeovers during the 14-year government of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez.
Soldiers organised hundreds of people into queues at Daka’s store in Caracas, then called them in one by one.
“Inflation’s killing us. I’m not sure if this was the right way, but something had to be done,” said Carlos Rangel, 37, who was among the shoppers. “I think it’s right to make people sell things at fair prices.”
Venezuela’s annual rate of inflation is now 54 percent, the highest since Chavez came to power in 1999. Critics of the government say that is due to economic mismanagement rather than unscrupulous retailers.
Opponents say excessive government controls and persecution of the private sector are to blame for shortages of basic goods, and for price distortions caused by a black-market currency rate nearly 10 times higher than the official price.
The state sells a limited amount of US dollars at 6.3 bolivars, but given the short supply, some importers complain they are forced into a black market where the price is nearly tenfold higher.
“I have to buy goods with black market dollars at about 60 bolivars, so how can I be expected to sell things at a loss?” a businessman, who asked not to be identified, asked the Reuters news agency.