CARACAS, Venezuela – Easter will be dry this year for beer and whiskey-loving Venezuelans.
President Hugo Chavez has taken his country by surprise, imposing a ban on alcohol sales during Holy Week that has prompted a run on liquor stores by an alarmed public.
Aimed at reducing the spike in alcohol-linked accidents and crimes during the holiday period, Chavez's government has prohibited the sale of alcoholic beverages on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday next week.
A more limited ban — restricting sales to between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., including at restaurants and bars — went into effect Friday that will last through Apr. 9.
The sudden, unprecedented measure confused many Venezuelans who raced to stash up before Friday's cutoff, thinking that would be their last chance to buy for more than a week.
"People are desperate, above all because the majority found out at the last minute," said Jose Manuel Fernandes, a liquor store owner in Caracas, as he struggled to meet the demands of dozens of customers yelling for bottles and cases of their preferred drink.
Industry figures show that Venezuela is among the top producers and consumers of beer in Latin America, while whiskey and rum are also popular spirits. Despite laws that prohibit the sale and consumption of alcohol in public areas, Venezuelans can often be seen drinking on street corners or sometimes even driving with a beer in hand.
Close to a hundred deaths and thousands of injuries are registered every year during the Easter holiday, which authorities attribute principally to alcohol consumption.
Chavez has a tendency to enforce his views forcefully on the public — enraged by the sight of children unloading beer crates in the slums, he ordered beer trucks off the street last year — and the latest measure had some suspecting that Chavez's friendly ties with Iran, were Islamic law forbids alcohol, were responsible this time.
"I got nervous. I thought Chavez had prohibited the sale of liquor seeing how he talks about Cuba, socialism and the (Iranian) ayatollahs," said 67-year-old retiree Enrique Salazar after buying three bottles to last him through the holiday.
"I don't drive so I'm not a danger to anybody," Salazar said. "Instead of prohibiting (sales), they should throw drunks who drive in jail."
Police rarely crack down on public alcohol consumption or screen drivers for drinking.
Most Venezuelans support Chavez, an admirer of Cuba's Fidel Castro who says he is leading a socialist revolution.
But they have been less enthusiastic about his attempts to curb over-drinking, including his announcement last October that beer trucks which sell alcohol directly on the streets of poor neighborhoods would be taken off the streets.
Chavez reassured then that he had no plans to forbid alcohol in Venezuela like in some Middle Eastern countries, but warned about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption blaming it for a degeneration of society.