CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela has jailed the owners of an unnamed chain of shops accused of engineering queues to whip up anger with the socialist government, President Nicolas Maduro said on Sunday.
Chronic shortages of basic goods, including flour, chicken and diapers, have triggered massive lines that sometimes stretch around blocks and have become a nightmare to navigate for Venezuelans.
Most economists blame the scarcity on currency controls that restrict dollars for imports, as well as falling domestic production.
Maduro, however, accuses a rapacious business elite of waging an “economic war” to bring down his administration.
“Yesterday we detected that a famous chain of stores was conspiring, irritating the people,” Maduro told a crowd of red-clad supporters and soldiers.
“We came, we normalized sales, we summoned the owners, we arrested them and they’re prisoners for having provoked the people,” he said to cheers, adding that the state would take over the food stores.
The stores purposefully reduced the number of cashiers to create lines, Maduro said earlier on Sunday, likening the strategy to a “guerrilla tactic.”
Authorities are also pressing charges against Venezuelan pharmacy chain Farmatodo for not opening enough check-out counters. Its executives have been summoned for questioning.
The government has jailed businessmen in the past for raising prices, and has launched several campaigns designed to combat contraband of price-controlled goods flowing to neighboring Colombia.
“Those who use their stores to hurt the people will pay with jail time,” said Maduro, donning a tracksuit with his name sewn on and a camouflage hat.
Critics say cracking down on businesses risks aggravating shortages and further deters investment.
They have also lampooned Maduro for not pushing through major structural changes to combat the country’s recession, over 60 percent inflation, and shaky finances.
Maduro, who won an election to replace his mentor, the late Hugo Chavez, in 2013, added he secretly toured the capital Caracas for four hours on Saturday with his wife and close adviser Cilia Floresto to survey the situation at stores.
Writing by Alexandra Ulmer. Editing by Andre Grenon