Venezuela seizes warehouses packed with medical goods, food

CARACAS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro’s government said on Thursday it had taken over warehouses around Venezuela crammed with medical goods and food that “bourgeois criminals” were hoarding for speculation and contraband.

Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro speaks during a meeting at Miraflores Palace in Caracas in this handout photo provided by the Miraflores Palace October 22, 2014. REUTERS/Miraflores Palace/Handout via Reuters

The socialist government says businessmen and wealthy opponents are trying to sabotage the economy to bring Maduro down, while also seeking to make profits from hoarding, price-gouging and smuggling across the border to Colombia.

Critics say 15 years of failed policies of state intervention are to blame for the OPEC nation’s widespread shortages, high inflation and apparently recessionary economy. They accuse nouveau riche officials and military officers of illegal business practices.

Maduro gave a live address to the nation from one of two warehouses seized in central Aragua state, where he said 14 million syringes and 2 million surgical gloves were among a massive hoard of medical equipment bound for Colombia.

“There’s enough medical equipment here to cover Aragua’s needs for a year. This is the criminal bourgeoisie. They are going to pay with jail, I swear it,” Maduro said, standing in front of piles of boxes and wheelchairs.

“The bourgeois parasites are hurting the people’s health.”

Maduro, the 51-year-old successor to the late Hugo Chavez who died of cancer last year, said the goods had been bought with dollars obtained from the state’s foreign exchange board and were due to be sold across the border in Colombia.

The government has in recent months undertaken a huge crackdown on smuggling, including closing the border at night and arresting 1,266 people.

Critics say Venezuela’s security forces have been at the heart of the trade for years, and contend contraband will not go away as long as state subsidies and exchange controls create price disparities offering tempting opportunities.

In the border states of Zulia and Tachira, state governors also displayed on Thursday warehouses packed with scores of tonnes of food and fuel which they said were bound for the contraband trade.

Maduro said the confiscated products would be distributed among Venezuelans in coming days. He did not name the owners of the warehouses or who had bought the goods, but said the ones in Aragua belonged to someone with a “famous surname.”

Pressure has been growing on the government over shortages of medical products, with huge queues at some pharmacies and the problem exacerbated by severe outbreaks of mosquito-borne fevers.

In a two-hour appearance, Maduro also announced he would use decree powers to increase the maximum jail sentence for smugglers to 14 years, set new “fair price” controls for basic goods from Nov. 1, and curtail informal reselling of food and medical essentials on the street.

Editing by Lisa Shumaker