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In oil-rich Venezuela, the pantry is bare

Venezuela’s Vice President Nicolas Maduro speaks in front of a screen with an image of President Hugo Chavez during a rally in Caracas, Jan. 23, 2013. Mr. Maduro has blamed food shortages on the private sector, alleging it is trying to force an increase in prices and a devaluation of the official exchange rate.

JORGE SILVA/REUTERS

Miriam Villae never knows what she'll find on the shelves of her grocery store in the Venezuela capital these days. Chances are it's not much.

As the oil-rich country grapples with the highest food shortage in four years, the 62-year-old grandmother and many others like her are being forced to make do without staples like flour and butter.

"Today I found corn meal and oil but there's no sugar," Ms. Villae told AFP as she slipped two packages of maize into her cart at a Caracas supermarket – much to the delight of her young grandson.

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"Wheat flour has long been missing," she added, noting that, day after day, she comes to "hunt" for chicken.

"Is there butter, is there butter?" asked another woman excitedly as both she and Ms. Villae gingerly tried to dodge the long lines of shoppers that formed as word spread about the delivery of oil, rice and the all-important corn meal, used to make arepas and empanadas.

The nation's central bank said recently its scarcity index, which tracks the percentage of consumer goods missing from grocery store shelves, rose to a four-year high of 16.3 per cent in December.

In light of the situation, some supermarkets and bakeries are restricting the amount people can buy. Some Caracas restaurants are even cutting back on their menu offerings.

"January is always a tricky month because distributors go on vacation in December but by mid-month inventories are usually restocked," said Edgar Parra, manager of a sparsely stocked grocery store in Caracas where customers scrounged for items. "Not this time around."

The government, which earlier this year launched a plan to prevent shortages, and introduced price controls in 2003, blames the bare shelves on an increase in consumption – along with hoarding by producers and speculators.

Led by ailing leader Hugo Chavez, who has not been seen in public for weeks after leaving the country to undergo cancer surgery in Cuba, the government alleges that the private sector is trying to force an increase in prices and a devaluation of the official exchange rate.

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"They have proposed that prices be freed, that foreign exchange controls be ended and that state-owned enterprises be privatized," Vice President Nicolas Maduro, Mr. Chavez's designated heir, said recently.

Officials have also accused the opposition of trying to destabilize the country amid political uncertainty in the absence of Mr. Chavez, the once omnipresent and outspoken leftist firebrand who missed his inauguration to a third six-year term on Jan. 10 due to poor health.

But analysts, such as Luis Vicente Leon, head of the Datanalisis polling firm, disagreed.

"Obviously, the Venezuelan economy is full of hoarders and speculators, they're the product of the controls and the hostility," he tweeted. "The real problem is there are not enough products to meet demand."

Roberto Leon, president of the ANAUCO consumer advocacy association, pointed to multiple causes – including a high dependence on food imports and bureaucratic hurdles.

"Public policies should change," he said.

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