CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — As soon as Dorisbell Pena received a text message informing her that President Nicolas Maduro seized control of a nationwide chain of appliance stores Friday, she rushed to the nearest outlet in the hopes of finding what's become one of the scarcest items of all these days in Venezuela: a bargain.
A 34-year-old teacher, Pena has watched as the price of a new stove she needs has doubled in recent weeks to 40,000 bolivars even as her 2,500 bolivar-a-month salary stays the same. "I've got to take advantage of this opportunity today because tomorrow the prices keep going up," Pena said while huddled among friends on the concrete sidewalk outside the Tiendas Daka store in the eastern Caracas neighborhood of Bello Monte.
She's not alone. At 1:30 a.m., shoppers were still arriving to join the hundreds who began amassing in the afternoon after price inspectors said they found evidence of "usury" and Maduro ordered the chain's "occupation." In a televised address Friday night, the president vowed to reopen the stores Saturday and unload their stock of plasma televisions, washing machines and other seized merchandise at "fair prices."
"Leave nothing on the shelves, leave nothing in the warehouses," he said. The Friday night frenzy, described by one bargain hunter as an "organized looting," cut across Venezuela's normally insurmountable political divide — a reflection of how near-record 54 percent inflation and shortages of basic goods such as milk and toilet paper are affecting all families in South America's biggest oil producer.
In a bid to bring down prices that have jumped in tandem with demand for dollars on the black market, Maduro on Wednesday tightened controls on currency transactions. With hard-fought municipal elections approaching next month, he also ordered the military to shut down businesses found hoarding products or speculating on prices.
In their second full day in the field, inspectors, followed by state television cameras, took control of two Daka stores in Caracas. Come nightfall, National Guardsmen, some brandishing assault rifles, helped maintain order at the Bello Monte outlet by assigning numbers to shoppers as they filed into a line that stretched around the block.
Jose Solano, shopper number 223, sides with Maduro and blames an "economic war" waged by enemies of the socialist revolution started by the late Hugo Chavez for pushing up prices beyond reach. With his son, he plans to spend the night sleeping in line so they can purchase a 46-inch, Sony plasma TV at a quarter of the 54,000 bolivar listed price still visible through the glass store front. The TV costs $8,571 at the official exchange rate and about $1,000 at the black market rate.
"I heard the owners of this store don't even live in Venezuela, they're in Miami," said Solano, a 49-year-old salesman of engine varnish. "They import at 6.3 but then sell it to the people and six times the amount," he said, referring to the gap that has opened between the dollar exchange rate some companies are able to import goods at and the black market one used to set prices for everything except the most basic, price-capped goods. "We can't allow this to continue."
The store's owners haven't yet responded to the accusations. Even opponents of Maduro expressed sympathy for his effort to check price gouging by private business. Sipping on a cup of white rum with her well-dressed, middle class friends, 24-year-old Ana Aquino said her salary as a public relations manager doesn't go as far as it used to.
"I'm not here taking a political position," said Aquino, who sometimes helps organize anti-government protests online. "I'm just against anyone abusing the Venezuelan people." Pena was even more circumspect about her politics. Uniquely in this polarized country, she refuses to say whether she'll support the opposition or pro-government candidates in what's shaping up to be a referendum on Maduro's rocky, seven-month rule.
"It doesn't matter whether you're a Chavista or opponent," she said. "We're all shoppers."
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: http://twitter.com/APjoshgoodman