* Dispute a bellwether of state-business tensions
* Maduro and Empresas Polar vow to work together
* New president faces tricky economic panorama
By Diego Ore
CARACAS, May 15 Socialist leader Nicolas Maduro
and the billionaire boss of Venezuela's biggest private company
have buried the hatchet after a war of words over food shortages
and other economic problems in the South American nation.
Perpetuating the hard-line rhetoric of his predecessor Hugo
Chavez, newly-elected Maduro turned on Empresas Polar president
Lorenzo Mendoza in recent days, accusing him of hoarding
products as part of an "economic war" on the state by private
Mendoza, whose company is Venezuela's biggest beer- and
flour-maker, denied that and pointedly challenged the government
to sell production plants nationalized under Chavez back to the
private sector to boost efficiency.
On Tuesday night, the pair met to discuss their differences
in a spat seen by Venezuelans as a bellwether for state-business
relations going forward under Maduro's government.
Both sides came out of the meeting sounding reconciliatory
and pledging to work together to overcome food shortages that
have increased tensions in Venezuela after Maduro's disputed
election win last month.
"It was very cordial, direct, sincere meeting ... We
clarified we are producing at full capacity," Mendoza said.
"The president was very kind in listening to us and
communicating the need to keep investing, producing and
supplying markets. That is our lifelong commitment, passion and
vocation ... Part of this issue (shortages) has to do with the
high politicization (in Venezuela)."
Vice President Jorge Arreaza gave a similar account of the
meeting. "The problem's been overcome," he told state TV.
TOUGH ECONOMIC PANORAMA
Supplies of food and other basic products have been patchy
in recent months, with long queues forming at supermarkets and
rushes occurring when there is news of a new stock arrival.
The situation has spawned jokes among Venezuelans,
particularly over the lack of toilet paper. The government
announced this week it was importing 50 million rolls to
compensate for "over-demand due to nervous buying."
Authorities have also allowed increases in some price
controls on products - including basics like chicken, beef and
milk - to the consternation of consumers but relief of private
businesses that complain of sometimes having to sell at a loss.
Mendoza's Polar is a central player in the Venezuelan
economy, employing more than 31,000 people and accounting for 3
percent of non-oil GDP, according to its own figures.
As well as dominating Venezuela's beer market, the company
controls 48 percent of the flour sector, 35 percent of pasta, 20
percent of rice, and 11 percent of cooking oil.
According to Forbes, the U.S-educated Mendoza, 47, is
Venezuela's second richest man with $4 billion net worth.
Chavez frequently threatened to nationalize Polar, but in
the end went no further than a few minor takeovers of warehouses
and land, perhaps in recognition of the status the company has,
with its products in almost every Venezuelan household.
Opposition leader Henrique Capriles, who disputes Maduro's
narrow win by 1.5 percent of votes in last month's presidential
election, says the food shortages and rhetoric against Polar
have simply illustrated the government's economic incompetence.
Others have been struck by Mendoza's unusually public
defense against Maduro's comments, something the businessman
seldom did during Chavez's 14-year rule.
"In the end, the meta-story here is the change in attitudes.
It strains the mind to think that Mendoza would have been this
feisty in defending his company if he were dealing with Hugo
Chavez at the peak of his popularity," wrote pro-opposition
blogger Juan Cristobal Nagel.
"The fact that he is willing to go to bat for his company -
and his ideas - so vehemently is further proof that Maduro is a
weak president, that he is no Chávez."
Maduro supporters, however, say the former bus driver and
union leader's willingness to sit down with Mendoza demonstrated
his qualities as a negotiator.
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.
With inflation at a worrying 12.5 percent in the first four
months of the year alone, and growth expected by most economists
to slow after the end of last year's election-year, Maduro faces
a tough economic as well as political environment.
Aware of the long-held enmity by Venezuela's business elite
towards his mentor Chavez, Maduro has since his first day in
power been railing against "bourgeois" saboteurs and
"speculators" whom he blames for economic problems.
(Additional reporting by Enrique Andres; Writing by Andrew
Cawthorne; Editing by Vicki Allen)