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Venezuela May Control Food Distribution

By CHRISTOPHER TOOTHAKER
The Associated Press
Sunday, February 11, 2007; 11:25 PM

CARACAS, Venezuela -- President Hugo Chavez's government has drafted a decree allowing officials to take control of food distribution chains, including supermarkets and storage depots, if services are interrupted, officials said Sunday.

Industry and Commerce Minister Maria Cristina Iglesias said the decree would help curb supply problems that have caused severe shortages of meats, milk and sugar in recent weeks.

Industry officials blame the shortages on price controls that oblige retailers to sell at a loss, while the government says the fault lies with unscrupulous speculators, including supermarket owners and distributors, who hoard food or boost prices.

The National Assembly, which is entirely controlled by a coalition of pro-Chavez parties, approved legislation last month granting the Venezuelan leader authority to enact sweeping measures by presidential decree as his government steers the poverty-stricken South American country toward socialism.

Chavez vowed after winning re-election in December to nationalize Venezuela's largest telecommunications company and the electricity sector and impose greater state control over the oil and natural gas industries as part of his socialist revolution. His critics, however, fear he is steering the country toward communism.

Iglesias did not provide specific details of how the decree could be implemented, saying only it would "permit, in extreme cases, the re-establishment of an essential public service" if private companies such as supermarket chains halt operations.

Supermarkets suspended sales of beef last week after one chain was shut down for two days for pricing meat above government-set levels. Most items can still be found, but only by paying higher prices at grocery stores or on the black market.

Authorities have raided warehouses and confiscated tons of food _ mostly beef and sugar _ from vendors unwilling to sell inventories at the official price.

Full-page government advertisements published in newspapers on Sunday showed a fake mug shot under a banner title reading "The Hoarder Is A Criminal," and warned consumers not to purchase foods at exorbitant prices.

Shortages of items ranging from milk to coffee have occurred since early 2003, when Chavez began regulating prices for 400 basic products as a way to counter inflation and protect the poor.

© 2007 The Associated Press