CARACAS – The relationship between Venezuela’s socialist government and Empresas Polar, the country’s largest private company and the top beer provider, has been sour for some years now, but lately tensions are escalating to what some are calling a full-blown “economic war.”
Polar, which is also a supplier of a wide range of food products, has repeatedly accused the government of withholding the foreign currency needed to import raw material and is warning it will have to keep on shutting down plants – so far four beer plants have stopped operating.
Polar announced last week that its beer distributors will run out of stock in mid-May if no action is taken. Representatives said they have run out of malted barley needed to brew 75 percent of the country's supply.
The government, on the other hand, claims Polar’s owner Lorenzo Mendoza is staging the shortages to cause panic and further a political agenda aligned with the opposition.
This week, after President Nicolas Maduro threatened on Sunday to take over any facility that halts production, Polar plants across the nation were the target of spectacular inspections purportedly aimed at verifying stock supplies.
Inspections carried out at two brewery plant in San Joaquin, Carabobo, were conducted with a contingent of military forces.
“On Monday they came with many military vehicles, assault weapons and even a helicopter flew over the plant,” Jhonny Magdaleno, a union leader at Polar’s brewery, told Fox News Latino. “On Tuesday they returned. The inspectors entered the plant, but the workers didn’t allow the military to take over the place.”
The government is also inspecting plants from other areas of the company. On Tuesday, a group of inspectors visited Polar’s plant in Chivacoa (Yaracuy), where maize flour – the base for the main Venezuelan meal, arepas – is produced.
“They wanted to calculate how much raw material we had in stock,” said Wilder Alvarado, a unionized worker at that plant, warning that they currently have supplies to produce flour for just a few more days.
“There have been almost 100 inspections to Polar plants in a few hours,” posted Wednesday @TodosSomosPolar, a Twitter account created by employees in 2010.
Polar directly employs more than 35,000 workers.
Roger Palacios, a union leader from the company’s food division, explained that they are no longer making pasta, cereals and sauces at the Chivacoa factory because they are out of supplies.
“In two weeks we will have to stop the production of canned tuna,” Palacios said, noting that Polar controls around 40 percent of that market in Venezuela.
The situation has sparked all kinds of rumors and conspiracy theories.
Some say that the government’s strategy is to put Polar under siege to publicly accuse and eventually charge Mendoza with “conspiracy.”
Nelson Bocaranda, the reporter who broke the news of Hugo Chavez’s cancer in 2011, recently supported this point in a newspaper column questioning the fact that Polar’s biggest brewery rival, Regional, had received foreign currency and is importing malted barley without a problem.
Chavistas are also spreading theories about the Polar affair.
Jesus Silva, a renowned government supporter and analyst, said recently that Mendoza could be using the country’s current economic situation as a springboard to position himself as a possible presidential candidate.
This idea was then backed by a poll, by local firm Poder y Estrategia, which showed Mendoza among the first five people Venezuelans would like to see as president.
He got 9 percent of support — more than President Maduro’s 8 percent.
The three union leaders Fox News Latino spoke to agree that Mendoza and his managers can’t be blamed for the current crisis.
“The government has to open up to an honest dialogue,” Palacios said. “The economic crisis can be solved if we all work together. Blaming Polar is not going to change anything, it’s just a distraction.”
Franz von Bergen is a freelancer reporter living in Caracas.