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By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS Nov 10 Coffee has disappeared from
many Venezuelan supermarkets, highlighting economic problems
ahead of local and regional elections in which politicians
allied with President Hugo Chavez may lose key posts.
Venezuelans go to the polls on Nov. 23 to elect state
governors and city mayors in a test of support for leftist
Chavez a year after he lost his first national vote since
winning power in 1998.
Venezuela last year struggled with widespread shortages of
staples such as milk and beef, which pollsters say contributed
to Chavez's defeat in a December referendum that would have let
him stay in office as long as he kept winning elections.
The government largely eliminated shortages earlier this
year. But in recent weeks, shoppers have been unable to find
coffee in stores, though cafes still serve it and street
vendors are selling it at about twice the regulated price.
Business leaders say the problem is largely driven by
strict price controls that the government uses to contain the
highest inflation in Latin America. The government blames
hoarding by unscrupulous businesses.
Chavez remains popular among Venezuela's poor majority who
value his social programs financed by oil sales.
But polls show Chavez may lose control over some important
regional posts on Nov. 23 because many voters are tired of
inefficient administration by governors and mayors who have
failed to provide basic services like garbage collection.
Venezuela is a coffee-growing nation and has two major
producers as neighbors -- Colombia and Brazil. Many of its
people dearly love their coffee, drinking several cups of
strong espresso every day.
Chavez's notoriously long television speeches almost always
include him downing several cups.
Nelson Moreno, head of the Venezuelan Coffee Industry
Association, said roasters are producing less than normal after
the government last month hiked the regulated price they must
pay farmers for beans without changing the retail price of
"We must have the guarantee of a new regulated price (for
ground coffee), because otherwise we cannot guarantee that the
industry can cover its costs," Moreno said.
Unusually heavy rains and a smaller harvest than expected
and hoarding by customers have exacerbated the problem.
The government is studying an increase in the regulated
price of ground coffee, but is not expected to make it official
until a week after the elections.
(Editing by Alan Elsner and Saul Hudson)