CARACAS Nov 9 Venezuela's President Nicolas
Maduro has ordered the "occupation" of a chain of electronic
goods stores in a crackdown on what the socialist government
views as price-gouging hobbling the country's economy.
Various managers of the five-store, 500-employee Daka chain
have been arrested, and the company will now be forced to sell
products at "fair prices," Maduro said late on Friday.
State media showed soldiers in one Daka shop, some checking
the price tags on large flat-screen TVs.
"We're doing this for the good of the nation," said Maduro,
50, who accuses wealthy businessmen and right-wing political
opponents backed by the United States of waging an economic
"war" against him.
"I've ordered the immediate occupation of this chain to
offer its products to the people at fair prices, everything. Let
nothing remain in stock ... We're going to comb the whole nation
in the next few days. This robbery of the people has to stop."
The measure, which comes after weeks of warnings from the
government of a pre-Christmas push against private businesses to
keep prices down, recalled the sweeping takeovers of businesses
during the 14-year rule of Maduro's predecessor Hugo Chavez.
Maduro, who took over from Chavez in April after the
latter's death from cancer, has stopped short of more outright
nationalizations, in this case saying authorities would instead
force Daka to sell at state-fixed prices.
Critics say Venezuela's runaway inflation - the annual rate
is now 54 percent, the highest since Chavez came to power in
1999 - is due to economic mismanagement and the failure of
socialist policies rather than unscrupulous retailers.
Opponents also blame excessive government controls and
persecution of the private sector for shortages of basic goods
ranging from flour to toilet-paper, and for price distortions
and corruption caused by a black-market currency rate nearly 10
times higher the official price.
"This ridiculous show they've mounted with Daka is a
not-very-subtle warning to us all," said a Venezuelan
businessman who imports electronic goods and is an opposition
Under price controls set up a decade ago, the state sells a
limited amount of 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 ten-fold higher.
"Because they don't allow me to buy dollars at the official
rate of 6.3, 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? Can my children eat with that?" added the businessman, who
asked not to be named.
Daka officials could not immediately be reached for comment.
Following Maduro's announcement, various officials showed
products and prices they said had been hiked up to 50 percent in
just a few weeks.
Maduro retains support from large sections of the
population, particularly the poor who benefit from massive state
welfare programs and who remain loyal to Chavez's dying
exhortation to support his chosen successor.
But the growing economic problems have begun weighing on his
popularity, which dropped 10 points in recent months to 41
percent according to a recent survey by pollster Datanalisis.
The economy is the No. 1 issue going into local elections
next month that are the 50-year-old Maduro's first test at the
polls since narrowly beating opposition leader Henrique Capriles
in the April presidential vote to replace Chavez.
Capriles, 40, is trying to cast the Dec. 8 nationwide
municipal elections as a referendum on Maduro, whose legitimacy
he still refuses to accept, alleging fraud at the presidential
"They don't say how they will fix inflation, shortages,
devaluation. Incompetence rules," he Tweeted this week in the
latest of a stream of attacks on the government.
Many economists are predicting a devaluation of Venezuela's
bolivar currency after the elections, perhaps in early 2014, but
senior officials have repeatedly denied that.
"Venezuela's immense resource base means it is not on the
verge of collapse or default," said David Smilde, a sociology
professor at the University of Georgia who has studied Venezuela
for 20 years, in a recent blog on the economy.
"But it is sliding into serious economic dysfunction and
that could seriously undercut Chavismo's viability as a
democratically supported political project."
(Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by David Brunnstrom)