CARACAS May 13 Venezuela's top food producer,
Empresas Polar, on Monday challenged the country's socialist
government to boost output of basic staples and ease nagging
product shortages, rejecting accusations it is hoarding products
to destabilize the economy.
Food supplies have become increasingly unsteady since late
last year. Shoppers struggle to find corn, wheat flour and basic
medicines - a constant complaint that could become a political
liability for President Nicolas Maduro.
The president over the weekend said Polar, which makes
products from beer to detergent, was intentionally cutting
output to leave supermarket shelves bare and weaken his
government through "economic war."
Polar President Lorenzo Mendoza, in a combative press
conference, said the product shortages have been partly spurred
by inefficiency of state-run companies nationalized during the
14-year-rule of late socialist leader Hugo Chavez.
"There's an immediate solution to this: Get the public
sector (food production) plants running at 100 percent," Mendoza
said, insisting Polar's output of products such as rice and corn
flour were at maximum capacity.
He added the government should increase the regulated prices
of food products that have in some cases forced companies to
produce at a loss.
The late Chavez turned the state into a major player in the
food industry through a wave of nationalizations, but many of
those operations have struggled to maintain production after
their takeover due to factors including labor disputes.
Business leaders now say months of delays in the country's
currency control system have left them without dollars needed to
import goods such as machine parts or grains such as wheat and
corn, slowing food production.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles said in an interview
with local media that Maduro faces an "economic crisis with no
exit," days after inflation hit a whopping 12.5 percent in the
first four months of the year alone.
Maduro beat Capriles in last month's presidential election,
triggered by Chavez's death, by 1.5 percentage points. The
opposition has refused to accept the result, alleging fraud.
Though food shortages are far from causing hunger, they have
become a growing annoyance - particularly in the provinces.
Several videos circulating online show hundreds of people in
the western city of Maracaibo last week being herded through a
gate to buy chicken at a state-run supermarket.
Some of them break into a sprint, and one is heard shouting
"This is the hunger marathon!"
One local newspaper in the city of Barquisimeto showed
pictures of hundreds of people lining up outside a supermarket
to buy corn flour, the main ingredient of the typical "arepa"
corn pancakes. Some had numbers written in marker on their
forearms to mark their place in line.
Mendoza on Monday offered to buy one of the government's
corn flour plants to boost production, a veiled jab at
nationalizations that critics say have weakened the economy.
"In 12 to 14 months we'll get it producing, our technicians
are up to the job," Mendoza said.
The government says unscrupulous merchants are hoarding
products to weaken the economy.
"There's an economic war intended to leave the country
without supplies of products, to unleash inflation, to prevent
international recognition of the government," Maduro said,
apparently referring to the opposition's unsuccessful lobbying
of regional governments to question his legitimacy.
He is slated to meet Mendoza on Tuesday.
The late Chavez took over large parts of the food industry
through nationalizations ranging from an agricultural seed
suppliers to rice and flour mills.
He also vastly expanded a network of subsidized state-run
supermarkets that provide cheap groceries to millions of poor
Chavez repeatedly threatened to take Polar over on charges
of hoarding to worsening food shortages. But the company's
products, which include Venezuela's most beloved beer, are
prized among the working class.
(Additional reporting by Diego Ore; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne
and Cynthia Osterman)