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CARACAS (Reuters) - It's Sunday morning. The sun is barely up, and already there are long lines outside a large state-run supermarket next to a hillside Caracas slum.
Rumor has it there's a fresh delivery of milk inside, so there is expectant chatter among the Venezuelan housewives, pensioners and teenagers lining up in the hundreds at the Bicentenario store.
When the doors finally open, uniformed guards keep order as the first shoppers charge in. They find crates of cherished milk to loud delight but, alas, no toilet paper today.
Long resigned to tedious queues for bureaucratic chores such as paying bills and renewing ID cards, this year Venezuelans have also begun facing long lines to buy food, clothes, electronics and a host of other daily items.
"The worst thing is the sun," says pensioner Hernan Torres, 68, shading himself with an umbrella outside Bicentenario.
"I suppose it can be fun if everyone's talking and cracking jokes. Sometimes people lose their cool. Then it gets nasty."
Critics of the government decry the lines as a humiliating new symbol of economic failure akin to scenes in communist-run Cuba, Soviet-era Russia or Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.
President Nicolas Maduro says the scarcities are largely caused by immoral businessmen hoarding products. That, he says, is exacerbated by a "consumerist" bent among the public that remains unchecked despite 15 years of socialism.
"I call on everyone to save resources, not to fall for panic buying," he said in one of several national appeals this month.
Maduro's supporters say the upsurge of queues in the last three weeks - not only for food but also for flat screen TVs, U.S.-branded sportswear and other non-essential items - is in fact proof of the popularity of his plan to force down prices.
With inflation hitting an annual 54 percent last month, Maduro has sent soldiers, inspectors and officials into shops to force retailers to lower their prices. He says that will create negative inflation, but opponents warn it may just worsen product shortages across the nation by deterring businesses.
Maduro's so-called "economic offensive" comes in the run-up to December 8 local elections that will be the first major test of his political strength since he narrowly won an election in April to replace his late mentor, Hugo Chavez.
"They had to bring the prices down. That was good. The problem now is everyone buying compulsively," said Hector Garcia, 32, a car park attendant who arrived at a Nike store at 4 a.m. to be first in line for opening six hours later.
Beaming at the front of the queue, Garcia said he was going to buy some sports shoes for 2,000 bolivars: three times cheaper than before the government's "offensive" against price-gouging began this month. That price is still a whopping $317 at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivares to the dollar, but only around $33 using the illegal black market rate.
Venezuelans are saddened by videos circulating online showing people stampeding into shops, or shouting and shoving each other when certain products arrive.
"I feel so impotent. Venezuela is falling to pieces. Now everything's rationed. It's shameful," said Narky Rodriguez, 38, a smartly dressed engineer standing in line to enter a hardware store for paint to freshen up her apartment.
Around her, some nodded while others tutted loudly.
Anecdotes abound of flare-ups in queues, often when people start complaining against the government and provoke diehard "Chavistas," who will hear nothing bad said about the legacy of their revered former leader, who died of cancer in March.
Conscious of volatility on the streets, authorities are placing soldiers, police and militia around stores as a deterrent. People are sometimes given numbers, then allowed in 10 or 20 at a time. There are limits to the quantity of some products people can buy in one visit to a shop.
In such circumstances, ingenuity is rife.
Full-time queuers will hold places for busy shoppers for a few hundred bolivars. A cash tip can create a fast route into a shop. Shoppers take elderly parents or young children with them to maximize their allowances for purchases.
When new deliveries arrive, word spreads within seconds via cell phones and social networks. And some Venezuelans have become extremely nosy, staring at each other's bags on the street to see what the other has bought and then work out where it came from.
The queue phenomenon has become so entrenched that psychologists are offering advice in local media.
Leave your high-heels at home but do take a good book, recommends one, telling readers their behavior in a queue will reflect, for better or worse, the essence of their personality.
In a nation whose people are always quick to laugh at their own predicament, black humor is flourishing. At the airport, "Bring us back some toilet paper!" is a common parting cry.
One anti-Maduro newspaper ran a cartoon of a shopper proclaiming "At last no queues!" in relief as she waits alone for an elevator. On entering the store, she sees why the queues have disappeared: only spiders are left on the shelves.
The nation's leading satirical website, Chiguire Bipolar, has had a field day with Kafkaesque spoof tales of queues that join each other in a circle, or the woman who "stood in a queue to be let in a queue to keep a spot in a queue," all while another woman gave birth beside her.
"The country has become one huge queue," wrote sociologist Tulio Hernandez in the pro-opposition newspaper El Nacional, saying the symbol of Venezuelan socialism was not a heroic figure, like in Russia or Cuba, but an exhausted person with toilet paper in one hand and a flatscreen TV in the other.
Reporting by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Lisa Shumaker