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LATIN AMERICA

Venezuela militarizes its supermarkets

Maduro wants to send in troops to combat food shortages and long lines

Customers line up to pay for food at a checkout in a Caracas supermarket.  Ampliar foto
Customers line up to pay for food at a checkout in a Caracas supermarket. BLOOMBERG

The policies of the late Hugo Chávez have disappeared inside their own labyrinth — and they have yet to find the Ariadne’s thread to lead them out.

The Venezuelan government is aware of the shortage of basic products affecting the country, but it prefers to tell voters that is confronting — and winning — “an economic war of the bourgeoisie,” a conclusion it has reached after assessing the workings of the country’s privately owned supermarkets.

Last week, President Nicolás Maduro condemned the supermarkets for forming part of a plot that aims to generate social breakdown. He said store managers were ordering workers not to place products on the shelves and creating long lines by not assigning staff to man checkouts. The goal, he said, was to create the feeling of bigger shortages.

His comments come despite the fact that the Central Bank of Venezuela reported this week that the provisions for 17 basic foodstuffs were 40 percent below adequate levels for satisfying demand.

In reality, the long lines that sometimes snake out of stores are a consequence of the new Labor Law, the last great transformation passed down by Chávez before his death, which obliges employers to guarantee staff two continuous rest days and a maximum of 40 working hours a week.

China alleviates the cash shortage

E. S.

On his return from a four-day tour of China, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Wednesday evening felt obliged to justify his close economic links with the Asian nation. “As comandante Chávez said,” he recalled, “China is a superpower, but not an empire.”

Maduro spoke from an assembly plant belonging to automobile manufacturer Chery, a Chinese brand that has been sold on the Venezuelan market for the past five years. The location was clearly a symbolic one for Chávez’s successor at the head of the Bolivarian Revolution to deliver his explanation of a visit that had been meant to last 12 days but ended abruptly on Wednesday.

The big news Maduro brought back with him was that China would be providing five billion dollars to boost Venezuela’s coffers, on top of the 50 billion in loans handed over as part of the new strategic alliance between the two nations.

“We do not have any debt with China, but rather financing,” he said, perhaps wanting to put to rest opposition concerns that he would be mortgaging the future of the country to the Chinese.

Maduro announced the availability of resources to construct new highways, a surveillance system to fight crime, more housing and a bus factory, all in participation with Chinese firms.

However, according to press reports, the government’s growing financial commitments with Beijing has met with criticism and suspicion from some official quarters, including the armed forces and dissident voices from within the governing United Socialist Party of Venezuela.

The idea behind the law was to get private companies to hire more workers, but now it has rebounded and is hampering the government’s efforts to bring down unemployment. Instead of hiring more staff, supermarket owners have decided to adjust their cost structures to the new reality — some have opted to close at weekends, while others have introduced new opening hours to comply with the ruling — and consumers are paying the price.

To alleviate the situation, Hebert García Plaza, chief of the Higher Authority for the Economy, has announced he will place members of the Bolivarian militia — groups of civilians enrolled by the government and usually armed — at the checkouts. But before their presence can be finalized the government first needs to liaise with supermarkets to ensure the militia men have adequate training to understand the product codes and necessary working methods.

At the same time, Vice President Jorge Arreaza has promised to speed up the dispatch of products from the ports by creating new weekend shifts to unload merchandise that has spent weeks held up at the docks. Maduro says the money to ensure full supplies is available. The memory of what happened 11 years ago, when a stoppage by the oil industry and a portion of business caused Venezuelans to experience a precarious Christmas, still weighs heavy.

Which is why, having barely disembarked him from the plane that brought him back from a four-day visit to China, President Maduro accepted the Higher Authority for the Economy’s proposal to attack the rising shortages.

With the country’s production apparatus ruined as a result of the model pushed forward by the government, the huge imports of products for the end-of-year period — Venezuela brings in 96 percent of what it consumes from abroad — run the risk of being left stranded in the ports owing to a series of bureaucratic tangles that prevent them from being taken out of the containers in time, as well as the employers’ self-interested interpretation of the Labor Law.

The government has hoped to drive forward national production via strictly regulated changes that have been going on for over a decade, but the overvalued Venezuelan bolívar — 6.30 to one US dollar — means it is more profitable for businesses to import.

To counteract this, since 2007 the state has demanded that prior to processing foreign currency at preferential prices before the regulatory body, Cadivi, importers must first present a Certificate of Non-National Production and solvency from the Venezuelan Institute of Social Security and the Labor Ministry.

The result has been shortages that have worsened since Chávez’s death and which only now, since Arreaza’s announcement to speed up the processing of imports of basic goods, has the government attempted to do anything about.