Mountains of rotting food found at a government warehouse, soaring prices and soldiers raiding wholesalers accused of hoarding: Food supply is the latest battle in President Hugo Chavez's socialist revolution.
Venezuelan army soldiers swept through the working class, pro-Chavez neighborhood of Catia in Caracas last week, seizing 120 tons of rice along with coffee and powdered milk that officials said was to be sold above regulated prices. "The battle for food is a matter of national security," said a red-shirted official from the Food Ministry, resting his arm on a pallet laden with bags of coffee.
Chavez supporters are grateful for a network of cheap state-run supermarkets and they say the raids will slow massive inflation. Critics accuse him of steering the country toward a communist dictatorship and say he is destroying the private sector. They point to 80,000 tons of rotting food found in warehouses belonging to the government as evidence the state is a poor and corrupt administrator.
Much of the wasted food, including powdered milk and meat, was found last month in the buildup to legislative elections in September. The scandal is humiliating for Chavez, who accuses wealthy elites of fueling inflation and causing shortages of products such as meat, sugar and milk by hoarding food.
A string of expropriations and buyouts of companies during the last couple of years has left the Chavez government now controlling between 20 percent and 30 percent of the distribution of staple foods. Chavez rushed to give public support to Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez, who as the boss of PDVSA is also responsible for food unit PDVAL, over the case of the rotting food. To further fight off criticism over the food scandal, Chavez revived threats to take over the country's largest private food processor, miller and brewer, Polar.