Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez has pushed his country into a perilous food war that has seen prices rocket amid shortages and scandal over shipments left rotting at the docks.
by Damien McElroy, Foreign Affairs Correspondent Published: 4:03PM BST 23 Jun 2010
Venezuelan bishops gave warning yesterday that the consequences of President Chavez's drive to control the distribution of food would be to jeopardise supplies to ordinary citizens.
Church leaders said the failure of the state-owned PDVAL, a subsidiary of the national oil company, to distribute food imports that rotted at the shores was "a sin that Heaven is crying over."
Several thousands tons of rotting meat was among 80,000 tons left to go bad at the Puerto Cabello seaport.
One local worker said that the stench at the docks indicated the meat had been festering for weeks. He said: "It stank like 100 dead dogs."
The scandal emerged just weeks after Mr Chavez launched an "economic war on the bourgeoisie owners" of supermarkets, mills, rice plants and food distribution companies.
The "battle for food" coincided with a botched devaluation in January that pushed up the cost of imports.
The result has been an economic catastrophe in the only Latin American economy in recession. Inflation leapt to 21 per cent in May as food prices rose 41 per cent over the level of a year ago. Soldiers have been deployed to raid private homes for food stores. Long lines regularly form on streets for basic commodities.
Mr Chavez is undeterred by failure. Last week he relaunched a chain of supermarkets his government had expropriated from a French-Colombian joint venture. He boasted that the 40-strong chain, Bicentennial Supplies, was already operating at a higher profit margin that under Western management.
The former paratrooper, who is an avowed fan of Robert Mugabe, the Zimbabwean dictator, and Fidel Castro, Cuba's Communist tyrant, boasted that he has launched a new era of socialist supremacy. He said:
"Socialism is necessarily better than capitalism across the board and, that's what we're proving,"
The shortages have a sharp drop in Mr Chavez's popularity ratings to 45 per cent a rare poll in March, from more than 70 per cent three years ago. "I am so fed up with these food shortages," one shopper who had failed to reach the head of a queue for sugar reportedly said. "People get desperate and start behaving like animals."
As complaints grow louder Mr Chavez has turned on the few remaining bastions of opposition in the country he has led since 1999. Guillermo Zuloaga, the owner of Globovision TV network, was forced to flee the country last month after he was charged with offending Mr Chavez by spreading false information.
The Caracas regime has threatened to move against billionaire Lorenzo Mendoza, owner of the Emprasas Polar, which owns the last significant supermarket rival to the Cuban-inspired state system. It has rejected Mr Chavez claims that it is profiteering from hoarding of food as "absurd and senseless."
But the 55-year old leader regularly threatens Mr Mendoza on his weekly television show Alo Presidente. "Mendoza if you keep messing around I'm going to take Polar away from you, every last plant," he said in March.
Venezuelan suffering has not hurt the overseas adoration that Mr Chavez attracts. Ken Livingstone, Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Bolivian leader Evo Morales are avowed cheerleaders for Mr Chavez in his confrontation with capitalism.
Oliver Stone, the US film director, will this week publish South of the Border, a documentary about Latin America that critics described as a hagiography of Mr Chavez.