CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela’s president on Sunday urged legal action against billionaire businessman Lorenzo Mendoza over a phone call which airs the possibility of an international bailout for the OPEC nation’s ailing economy.
The 50-year-old Mendoza runs Venezuela’s largest private company, Empresas Polar, and has often been cast as a symbol of unscrupulous capitalism by socialist President Nicolas Maduro and his predecessor Hugo Chavez.
This week, state media broadcast a phone call between Mendoza and U.S.-based Venezuelan economist Ricardo Hausmann in which the latter says a $40 billion (£25.91 billion) to $50 billion International Monetary Fund package and “adjustment” plan is needed.
The Maduro government - which blames an “economic war” by political foes for Venezuela’s recession, product shortages, currency collapse and the highest inflation in the world - has hailed the conversation as evidence Mendoza is conspiring.
“Look what the long-haired aristocrat said, selling the country to the IMF. What is he thinking?” Maduro told state TV, using a mocking local term for the old ruling elite, “pelucon”, that he has coined for Mendoza in the past.
“It’s a crime ... to speak on behalf of the fatherland, a serious crime contemplated in the judicial code. He should be prosecuted ... I hope the judicial bodies react.”
There was no immediate reaction from Mendoza, who spent most of the call listening to Hausmann’s view on the need for IMF intervention in Venezuela and then agreed with his assessment that the nation would need $40 billion to $50 billion.
In a communique earlier this week, however, the Polar boss did not dispute the veracity of the broadcast but said his private conversation had been recorded illegally and then exploited for political means.
Mendoza, whose company makes Venezuela’s top-selling beer and a brand of flour used for the staple food arepas, said he regularly spoke to economists across the political spectrum both at home and abroad about how to improve the economy.
“There’s nothing new in leaders and experts, of different political and economic ideologies, considering it urgent to implement economic changes,” he said in the communique, adding that he had publicly made economic proposals to Maduro.
With polls showing the ruling “Chavismo” movement likely to lose a December parliamentary vote in what could be its worst-ever electoral showing, authorities have been taking an increasingly tough line against opponents.
A handful of opposition leaders, most notably hardline protest leader Leopoldo Lopez, are under detention, while some businessmen have also been rounded up, accused of hoarding and price-gouging.
Editing by Edmund Klamann