Venezuela jails 100 "bourgeois" businessmen in crackdown

Reuters

By Andrew Cawthorne and Deisy Buitrago

CARACAS, Nov 14 (Reuters) - Venezuela's socialist governmenthas arrested more than 100 "bourgeois" businessmen in acrackdown on alleged price-gouging at hundreds of shops andcompanies since the weekend, President Nicolas Maduro said onThursday.

"They are barbaric, these capitalist parasites!" Madurothundered in the latest of his lengthy daily speeches. "We havemore than 100 of the bourgeoisie behind bars at the moment."

The successor to the late Hugo Chavez also said hisgovernment was preparing a law to limit Venezuelan businesses'profits to between 15 percent and 30 percent.

Officials say unscrupulous companies have been hiking pricesof electronics and other goods more than 1,000 percent. Criticssay failed socialist economic policies and restricted access toforeign currency are behind Venezuela's runaway inflation.

"Goodyear has to lower its prices even more, 15percent is not enough, the inspectors have go therestraightaway," Maduro said in his evening address, sendingofficials to check local operations of the U.S.-based tiremanufacturer.

Since the weekend, soldiers and inspectors have gone into1,400 shops, taken over operations at an electronics firm and abattery-making company, and rounded up a handful of looters.

The move - Maduro's boldest since taking office in April -is reminiscent of the dramatic governing style of Chavez, whonationalized swaths of the OPEC member's economy during his14-year socialist rule.

Like Chavez, Maduro says he is defending the poor.

The inspections have shaken Venezuela three weeks beforelocal elections that his opponents are casting as a referendumon the 50-year-old former bus driver. Maduro has made preservingChavez's legacy the mainstay of his government and has beenmatching his former mentor's anti-capitalist rhetoric.

"It's time to deepen the offensive, go to the bone in thiseconomic war," he said.

Only a few of the hundreds of shops targeted with surpriseinspections had been found to be offering "fair prices,"officials say. Some businesses are voluntarily lowering prices -or staying closed - in case the inspectors come.

"We've reduced everything by 10 to 15 percent, but it's notfair. I can't make a profit now," said the owner of one smallelectronics store, who asked not to be identified.

"I agree they should go for the big fish, the realspeculators, but they risk hurting us all."

Venezuela's official inflation, 54 percent annually, is thehighest in the Americas.

Maduro said the forced price discounts should lead tonegative inflation of 15 percent in November and 50 percent inDecember - forecasts that brought immediate mockery from criticson Twitter.

CROWDS AT SHOPS

Around Caracas and other major cities, crowds of shoppersare flooding electronics, clothing and other outlets where pricecuts are anticipated. There has been some violence.

The Venezuelan Observatory of Social Conflicts reported 39incidents of looting or attempted looting since Friday. "We askofficials to moderate language in speeches that could beinterpreted as calls to violence," the local non-governmentalorganization said.

The rhetoric on both sides is becoming more strident.

The campaign to reduce prices and blame entrepreneurs mayplay well with Maduro's power base among the poor and could helpunite factions within the ruling Socialist Party.

Given Venezuelans' anxiety over inflation, and scarcities ofbasic goods from toilet paper to milk, Maduro was risking abacklash at the Dec. 8 nationwide municipal elections.

Plenty of Venezuelans have applauded his measures, sayingprice hikes were out of control, while others have expressedfears that Maduro could be uncorking dangerous forces.

Critics say the moves do not tackle the roots of Venezuela'seconomic malaise, like an overvalued bolivar that forces manyimporters to buy black-market dollars and then pass those costson to consumers.

The government has ordered local telecom companies to blockvarious websites showing the bolivar at 10 times the officialrate of 6.3 to the greenback on the illegal market.

Prominent pro-opposition columnist Nelson Bocaranda said Maduro's economic policies were "chillingly similar" to those ofZimbabwean President Robert Mugabe. The African leader also usedsecurity forces to enforce a price crackdown in 2007.

Opposition party Justice First accused the state ofhypocrisy, saying its stores were also hiking pricesunjustifiably.

An imported sandwich toaster, for example, that costs $34.99in the United States, was selling at a fivefold markup of 1,100bolivars ($175 at the official exchange rate) in statesupermarket chain Bicentenario, it said.

"This shows the economic chaos Maduro has got us in whereprices have no logic. The government created this monster andnow tries to pretend it will control it, but Venezuelans cannotbe deceived by this electoral show," Justice First said.

Like Chavez on several occasions, Maduro is seeking decreepowers from Congress, which granted preliminary approval onThursday. He says he needs the Enabling Law to fix the economy,but critics accuse Maduro of simply amassing power.

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