BOGOTA, Colombia -- Facing a bread shortage that is spawning massive lines and souring the national mood, the Venezuelan government is responding this week by detaining bakers and seizing establishments.
In a press release, the National Superintendent for the Defense of Socioeconomic Rights said it had charged four people and temporarily seized two bakeries as the socialist administration accused bakers of being part of a broad "economic war" aimed at destabilizing the country.
In a statement, the government said the bakers had been selling underweight bread and were using price-regulated flour to illegally make specialty items, like sweet rolls and croissants.
The government said bakeries are only allowed to produce French bread and white loaves, or pan canilla, with government-imported flour. However, in a tweet on Thursday, price control czar William Contreras said only 90 percent of baked goods had to be price-controlled products.
Two bakeries were also seized for 90 days for breaking a number of rules, including selling overpriced bread.
Juan Crespo, the president of the Industrial Flour Union called Sintra-Harina, which represents 9,000 bakeries nationwide, said the government's heavy hand isn't going to solve the problem.
"The government isn't importing enough wheat," he said. "If you don't have wheat, you don't have flour, and if you don't have flour, you don't have bread."
He said the country needs four 30-ton boats of wheat every month to cover basic demand.
The notion that bread could become an issue in Venezuela is one more indictment of an economic system gone bust. The country boasts the world's largest oil reserves but it has to import just about everything else. Facing a cash crunch, the government has dramatically cut back imports, sparking shortages, massive lines and fueling triple-digit inflation.
Earlier this week, President Nicolas Maduro launched "Plan 700" against what he called a "bread war," ordering officials to do spot checks of bakeries nationwide. In the plan, the government said it would not allow people to stand in line for bread but it's unclear how it might enforce the order.
"The government is doing everything in its power to end the bread lines," Crespo said, "but they're looking at the whole thing backwards."
Crespo said he'd been in touch with several union members in Caracas and that most said they'd passed the inspection by simply opening their pantries.
"The bakeries are showing the authorities that they have no bread inventory," he said. "The government has to see the reality."
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