CARACAS Nov 14 President Nicolas Maduro has
promised to step up a pre-election "economic offensive" that has
seen hundreds of Venezuelan businesses inspected for price
gouging and crowds flocking to shops to take advantage of
Since the weekend, soldiers and government inspectors have
gone into 1,400 shops, taken over operations at an electronics
firm and a battery-making company, begun prosecutions of nearly
30 retail managers, and also rounded up a handful of looters.
The move - Maduro's boldest since taking office in April -
is reminiscent of the dramatic governing style of his
predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who nationalized large swathes of the
OPEC member's economy during his 14-year socialist rule.
Like Chavez, Maduro says he is defending the poor.
The inspections have convulsed Venezuela three weeks before
local elections that his enemies 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 and has been
matching his former mentor's anti-capitalist rhetoric.
"There is not going to be any turning back or repentance!"
Maduro thundered in a speech late on Wednesday, apologizing for
not starting the inspections sooner.
"We are facing down barbaric capitalism."
Only a few of 1,400 shops targeted with surprise inspections
had been found to be offering fair prices, Maduro added.
Some businesses are voluntarily lowering prices - or staying
closed - in case the inspectors come.
"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."
Fanning around the nation and often reporting back to Maduro
on live TV, officials accuse businesses of hiking prices by
1,000 percent or more in some cases. Venezuela's official
inflation, 54 percent annually, is the highest in the Americas.
Around Caracas and other major cities, crowds of shoppers
are flooding electronics, clothing and any 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 Friday. "We ask
officials to moderate language in speeches that could be
interpreted as calls to violence," it said.
The rhetoric on both sides, however, is becoming more
MADURO: "I'M NO LOOTER"
In his speech late on Wednesday, Maduro urged a boycott of
pro-opposition newspapers like El Universal and El Mundo, and
also recommended that opposition legislator Miguel Cocchiola be
jailed for alleged price fiddling at his hardware business.
"He's a thief. We've been checking his bills, and he's been
robbing the people for years," Maduro said.
"I am not a looter. The bourgeois parasites are the
looters," he said of opposition parties' accusations of
"organized looting" by the government.
The campaign to reduce prices and blame private
entrepreneurs may play well with Maduro's power base among the
poor and could help unite the fissured ruling Socialist Party.
Given Venezuelans' anxiety over inflation, and scarcities of
basic goods from toilet paper to milk, Maduro was risking a
backlash at the Dec. 8 nationwide municipal elections.
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 currency that forces many
importers to buy black market dollars then pass those costs onto
The government has ordered local telecoms companies to block
various websites showing the bolivar at 10 times the official
rate of 6.3 to the greenback on the illegal market.
Prominent pro-opposition columnist Nelson Bocaranda said
Maduro's economic policies were "chillingly similar" to those of
Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. The African leader also used
security forces to enforce a price crackdown in 2007.
Opposition party Justice First accused the state of
hypocrisy, saying its stores were also hiking prices
An imported sandwich-toaster, for example, that costs $34.99
in the United States, was selling at a fivefold markup for 1,100
bolivars ($175 at the official exchange rate) in state
supermarket chain Bicentenario, it said.
"This shows the economic chaos Maduro has got us in where
prices have no logic. 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.
Like Chavez did on several occasions, Maduro is seeking
decree powers from Congress, which was due to debate his request
in a first reading on Thursday. He says he needs the Enabling
Law to resolve Venezuela's economic problems, but critics accuse
Maduro of simply amassing power.
Venezuela's global bonds took a beating earlier this week
over the measures, but recovered slightly in Thursday's trading.