In socialist Venezuela, a Barbie under every tree

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Socialism has embraced Barbie, just in time for Christmas.

Mothers, grandmothers and beaming little girls are grabbing armfuls of the dolls in toy stores across Caracas, taking advantage of the government's order that large chains sell the plastic figurines at fire-sale prices during the holiday shopping season.

No sooner had saleswoman Crystal Casanova begun mounting a display of gleaming pink Barbie boxes on a recent weekday than a horde of women descended. Soon, she and her coworkers were letting customers grab the dolls straight out of the Mattel-stamped cardboard cartons.

Within minutes, the entire stock was gone, selling at a price of 250 bolivars -- $2.50 at the widely used black market conversion rate.

The socialist government has long imposed price caps on scores of essential products, from milk to detergent to diapers, and it threatens to imprison retailers who hoard goods or sell them at what officials consider an unfair profit margin. Critics say those controls discourage imports and are a major reason for the country's chronic shortages.

Now it's making the Barbie doll, often derided by leftists as a training tool for capitalist consumerism, a highlight of this year's "Operation Merry Christmas" initiative, which President Nicolas Maduro says is meant to prevent speculators from ruining the holidays.

Maduro's mentor, the late President Hugo Chavez, once denounced "the stupidity of Barbie" and called for Venezuela to develop dolls celebrating its own culture.

Women's rights activists, too, often criticize Barbie for presenting an unrealistic and even unhealthy image of the female body. Yet it's an image that many strive to attain in Venezuela, a world leader in beauty queens and plastic surgery.

And the low prices are bringing holiday cheer for many.

Andrea Alberto, a 22-year-old student, managed to nab a stack of dolls she bought for her stunned-looking 3-year-old. She tucked one under the child's chubby arm, an "I Can Be Cheerleader" Barbie, complete with sparkling pompoms, that goes for $24 in the U.S.

Last year, she had to pay dearly to put a brand-name doll under the tree. The most basic Barbie normally costs about 500 bolivars here-- three days' pay for someone earning minimum wage. More elaborate models can go for seven times as much.

Government inspectors ordered the low prices, arguing that the retailers can still make a profit with the reduced prices.

Business groups argue that such orders often mean selling at a loss, though retailers declined to comment on the case of the Barbies.

The government itself also sells some highly subsidized products for the holidays.

Hundreds of Venezuelans camped out for a shot at buying deeply discounted plasma TVs, computers and refrigerators at a government-run fair that began this month.

With daily shortages that force Venezuelans to line up for hours to buy milk, the occasional crusade of price cuts and special sales are welcomed even by critics of the revolution launched by Chavez.

"It's his fault we're in this mess, but I guess I have to admit I am benefiting from Chavismo right now," Alberto said, laughing with her friends.

Maria Gonzalez, who lives in one of Caracas' hillside slums, snagged two deeply discounted "Spa to Fab" Barbies, which go for $19.50 in the U.S. Her grandchildren and great-nieces love the dolls, she said, but she could never afford to buy them any.

"They're going to be so excited," she said, and then went back to see if she could find a third box.