Venezuela has a 'let them eat cake' moment

Alex VASQUEZ
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People queue outside a bakery in Caracas to buy bread which has become all but impossible to find at many Venezuelan bakeries

After living through shortages of water, electricity, medicine, banknotes and beer, Venezuelans are now struggling to find one of the most basic foodstuffs of all, unleashing what President Nicolas Maduro has dubbed the "Bread War."

Bread has become all but impossible to find at many Venezuelan bakeries, which say Maduro's socialist government is not importing enough flour for them to make it.

Not so, insists the mustachioed heir to the late Hugo Chavez, who accuses bakeries of hoarding flour to destabilize his government and using it in expensive cakes and pastries rather than cheap, subsidized bread.

Maduro, whose popularity has plummeted amid a crushing three-year recession, has dispatched the army, police and uniformed civilian militias to escort officials from the National Superintendency for the Defense of Socioeconomic Rights in a wave of bakery inspections.

"They are hiding the bread from the people," the president said Sunday on his weekly TV program, vowing to crack down on greedy bakers.

"They are going to pay for this, I swear. Those responsible for the Bread War will pay. And don't go around calling it 'political persecution.'"

This week the authorities arrested four people in the crackdown and confiscated two bakeries accused of charging more than the official bread price.

A video posted online by the authorities shows chief inspector Williams Contreras leading one bakery sting.

"There are going to be some arrests here," he said, after finding a sign outside reading "No bread until further notice."

"They had 100 sacks of flour, butter, sugar -- all the essential ingredients inside," he said triumphantly as police arrested the bakery's managers.

- Cake not the problem -

Home to the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela has skidded to the brink of economic collapse as low crude prices have laid bare its overwhelming dependence on its chief export.

Maduro, who was elected to succeed Chavez in 2013 and is fighting efforts to force him from power, blames the crisis on an "economic war" by US-backed business interests.

His opponents blame the failure of 18 years of socialist "revolution" under Maduro and Chavez.

The crisis has left the country torn between die-hard "Chavistas" and an increasingly outraged majority no longer willing to forgive the socialists' excesses in return for government handouts.

The government heavily subsidizes imports of basic food products such as flour via an artificially high exchange rate. But plummeting oil revenues mean the dollars needed to keep the scheme going are in short supply.

Bakeries allowed to buy subsidized flour are supposed to use 90 percent of it for bread and only 10 percent in cakes and pastries.

On Sunday's presidential TV show, Vice President Tareck El Aissami accused bakeries of flouting that regulation by making too many cakes.

It was a moment reminiscent of Marie-Antoinette's apocryphal quote, "Let them eat cake" -- which the queen is held to have said of the breadless, starving peasantry on the eve of the French Revolution.

The Venezuelan Federation of Bread Manufacturers says cake is not the problem.

According to the industry group, Venezuela's 8,000 bakeries are receiving just 30,000 tonnes of flour a month, when they need four times that to meet demand.

- Baking in fear -

"When there's flour, we sell bread. But they deliver it every 15 or 20 days. They give us 20 sacks (of 50 kilograms, or 110 pounds). In normal circumstances, we'd use eight a day," said Fran Suero, 41, an employee at a bakery on the east side of Caracas.

Even with subsidized flour, bakers say the official bread price -- currently 250 bolivars a loaf (35 US cents, at the highest official exchange rate) -- does not cover the cost of production.

Black-market bread on the street goes for 900 bolivars.

Bakers are increasingly nervous.

Mario, a bakery manager in the Catia neighborhood of Caracas, said inspectors came to visit him last week and threatened to arrest him. Luckily, fresh loaves of bread came out of the oven just in time, he said.

"People don't have flour, rice or corn flour at home, so they have to buy bread. But bakeries aren't getting enough flour," he said.

"The government is the one that imports all those things. But they're trying to put the blame on us."