Caracas, Venezuela (AP) – President Nicolás Maduro, who called for an emptying of shelves when he seized control of a slew of appliance retailers last week, urged calm Monday as Venezuelans massed outside stores nationwide for a fourth straight day.
Maduro, in a nationally televised address, charged that opposition agitators had infiltrated the long lines that have formed in several cities and were trying to stir up violence. He said he was deploying tens of thousands of volunteer civilian militiamen to assist security forces in crowd control.
"Be calm, these products will stay where they are," Maduro said, adding that under no circumstances would he allow companies to gouge consumers again. "There's no need to sleep outside store doors. Nobody should despair. Nobody should get anxious."
Tension has hung over much of Venezuela since Maduro last week took control of several electronics retailers he accuses of hiking prices to sow discontent and destabilize his rule. This week the government is expanding its crackdown to businesses selling clothes, shoes and automobiles, all of which have seen prices shoot up in tandem with a sharp drop in Venezuela's bolivar currency on the illegal black market.
Business groups have accused the government of carrying out a witch hunt, and shops in parts of eastern Caracas shuttered early Monday for fear of violence. In the suburb of Los Teques, police fired shots in the air to prevent crowds from raiding a toy store. On Saturday, looters cleaned out an electronic store in the city of Valencia.
Still, even some opponents of Maduro have applauded his tough stance against what he calls the "parasitic bourgeoisie," and many of the president's political foes are waiting in the lines with his supporters to take advantage of deep discounts.
Among those waiting since Saturday night in a five-block-long line outside the JVG electronics shop in eastern Caracas was Robert Cox. Cox said he opposes the government, and disagrees with the abrupt way Maduro slashed prices, but he added that couldn't afford to let pass by the opportunity to restock his home the latest appliances.
"If I weren't here, someone else would be," he said.
Maduro is gambling that by expanding price controls he can regain support he has lost since being elected in April, as inflation soared to a two-decade high and the U.S. dollar shot up on the black market to nine times its official value.
The president said he also plans to set profit margins for companies if congress approves a law granting him special powers and is creating a special prosecutor to investigate businesses for "usury and robbery of the people."
Analysts said the populist measures might bolster government candidates in next month's mayoral elections, but warned that the tougher rules are likely to inflict more damage on Venezuela's economy by discouraging investment and adding to shortages that reached a record level in October.
Maduro is also taking his offensive to the Internet, blocking access to seven websites that track the value of the country's bolivar currency on the black market. The president over the weekend accused the websites of spreading panic and conspiring against his government.
Free-market economists say the only way to stabilize the economy is to lift capital controls put in place a decade ago by the late President Hugo Chavez and to devalue the bolivar.
That's a notion Maduro rejects.
The president argues that Venezuela's 54 percent inflation rate is the result of hoarding and speculation by his opponents in Venezuela and in the U.S. He says the country, which is South America's biggest oil producer, has more than enough dollars to pay for imports.
If not for the "economic war" being waged by his opponents, inflation should be running around 16 percent to 18 percent, Maduro said Sunday night.