Christmas seemed to have come early in Venezuela as snaking lines of sleep-deprived people formed outside fancy stores and soldiers stood on guard in Caracas and other cities during the weekend after President Nicolas Maduro ordered the army to “occupy” a chain of electronics stores that was “hoarding goods with the objective of hobbling the country’s economy”.
In a nationwide crackdown, which started on Friday night, top managers of the Daka chain were arrested and its stores forced to sell products at much cheaper prices.
“We’re doing this for the good of the nation”, said Mr. Maduro in a televised speech, accusing the country’s elite of waging an economic “war” against Venezuela with the help of Washington.
Within hours of his address, hordes of people — poor and middle-class — headed to their nearest Daka store as officials fanned across the country to check prices as part of a drive against speculators.
While opposition parties and critics blame government controls for shortages of goods and rising inflation (54 per cent), Mr. Maduro accuses big chains for spiking up the prices.
In his address, he expressed shock that a fridge on sale in Daka cost 196,000 bolivars (US$ 25,000 at official exchange rate) and air-conditioners, priced at 7,000 bolivars in state stores, were marked up 36,000 bolivars by Daka.
Mr. Maduro’s tough action against price rise just before the beginning of the Christmas season got approval from his poor supporters as well as middle-class Venezuelans. Speaking to reporters, Jose Solano, a shopper, blamed an “economic war” waged by “enemies of the socialist revolution” for pushing up prices beyond reach.
Even opponents expressed sympathy.
“I’m not here taking a political position,” Ana Aquino, a public relations manager who sometimes helps organise anti-government protests online, told news agencies.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Chavista or opponent,” she said. “We’re all shoppers.’’
As millions queued at big stores, the opposition led by Henrique Capriles alleged that Mr. Maduro decided to “hand out the Christmas bonus” in November as his Socialist Party was facing “hard-fought municipal elections” on December 8.
But TeleSur, an independent news station, reported that prices were actually being hiked deliberately by some big chains.
A laptop a store bought for US$601 from abroad, a TeleSur report said, was being sold at one location for US$4,125.