Venezuela arrests looters, store bosses in ‘economic war’

CARACAS,  (Reuters) – President Nicolas Maduro’s government announced arrests of both store managers and looters yesterday as part of what it calls an “economic war” in Venezuela between the socialist state and unscrupulous businessmen.

In a major pre-Christmas offensive reminiscent of the late President Hugo Chavez’s dramatic style, Maduro has sent soldiers to “occupy” one chain of electronics stores and inspectors into scores of others to check for price-gouging.

Thousands of Venezuelans have been flocking to electronics stores, hoping to take advantage of new “fair prices” the government is imposing, sometimes half the previous cost.

However, scenes of looting on Saturday at a store belonging to the occupied electronics chain, Daka, have left many Venezuelans ashamed and fueled opposition claims that Maduro is stirring chaos rather than defending the poor.

Authorities announced that five managers, from the local Daka, JVG and Krash, would be prosecuted on charges of unjustified price hikes after importing products with dollars obtained at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars.

Officials have displayed for cameras TV’s, washing-machines and air-conditioning units whose prices they say have been hiked 1,000 percent or more by get-rich-quick businessmen.

Many shop owners justify this year’s spiraling prices – annual inflation has hit 54 percent – by saying they are forced to buy greenbacks for imports on an illegal black market at nearly 10 times the official rate.

Five people accused of looting Daka’s store in the central city of Valencia have also been arrested, the Attorney General’s office said in a statement.

Some Twitter users circulated more images on Sunday of crowds and jostling outside some shops around Venezuela.

But there appeared to be no more outright looting as was seen in Valencia, where dozens of people were caught on camera running out of the Daka outlet with flat-screen TVs and boxes.

Vice-President Jorge Arreaza promised no let-up in the government’s drive to lower prices.

“The Bolivarian government’s actions against speculators have been and will be firm,” he said, using a name that his late father-in-law Chavez added to the government’s formal title in honor of independence hero Simon Bolivar.

“We are going to protect the people from bourgeois parasites … We ask for trust and calm.”

Seven months after Maduro narrowly beat opposition leader Henrique Capriles at a presidential election to replace his mentor Chavez, Venezuela is once again consumed by bitter politicking ahead of local municipal elections next month.

At the heart of the campaign is who takes blame for the country’s economic problems: price rises that are hitting the poor majority hard despite the government’s oil-fueled subsidies and welfare programs, shortages of basic products from toilet paper to milk, and a convoluted currency market.


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