April 5, 2013 / 11:26 PM / 5 years ago

Venezuela's Polar issues sharp response to Maduro threat

CARACAS, April 5 (Reuters) - Venezuela’s leading beer and food company, Empresas Polar, responded sharply on Friday to renewed government criticism, saying the state currency board owed it $141 million and was delaying the release of dollars for up to 200 days.

Polar’s unusually strong statement came after a threat against it from acting President Nicolas Maduro that may have foreshadowed more clashes between the private sector and the socialist government if, as expected, he wins an April 14 vote.

Maduro, who like his former boss Hugo Chavez, has been blaming private companies and “speculators” for Venezuela’s economic difficulties and tore into Polar at a rally on Thursday.

“Polar, Polar, Polar, carry on with your sabotage of the people’s food, carry on, it’s fine,” he said, sarcastically, before warning: “Everything in life comes to an end.”

Though he was not specific, Maduro appeared to be blaming Polar for shortages of some products in Venezuela and reviving Chavez’s oft-stated threat to nationalize the company.

But the company said it was producing at maximum capacity, while being hampered by inefficiencies in the release of dollars under Venezuela’s strict currency controls.

That is a common complaint of importers in Venezuela.

“In some cases the delays reach 200 days. This situation prejudices the production cycle, relations with international suppliers and the timely obtaining of materials,” Polar said.

“We are waiting for $140.7 million to be released ... Food is a sensitive subject for the population, so we are surprised that President Nicolas Maduro has made a threatening public reference to this company based on incorrect information.”

Chavez, who died of cancer a month ago, built his political career on pledges to smash Venezuela’s capitalist elite and redistribute wealth to the poor. He nationalized large swathes of the South American OPEC member’s economy.

Maduro uses near-identical rhetoric of his former boss, though Chavez’s frequent spats with Polar and its owner Lorenzo Mendoza had seldom elicited such a strong public response from the company.

Polar is famous for making the nation’s top-selling beer and a brand of flour used for arepas, the grilled corn dough patty that is Venezuela’s staple food.

It also distributes Pepsi-Cola (PEP.N) in Venezuela.

Polar is Venezuela’s biggest private employer with 48,000 direct and indirect employees. It owns 30 factories and its products are distributed in 150,000 stores.

The company said its monthly food sales in the last six months had been 73,356 tonnes, a 3 percent rise on the same period of 2012.

As well as delays in dollar releases by currency board Cadivi, Polar complained that officials were meddling with distribution routes, costs had soared due to a devaluation, and price controls had not been revised in two years.

It called for a dialogue with the government, which in the past has confiscated some of Polar’s properties. (Editing by Eyanir Chinea and Bob Burgdorfer)

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