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Venezuela president halts food sale plan

by By JORGE RUEDA Associated Press on June 09, 2013 2:00 AM

CARACAS, Venezuela — President Nicolas Maduro said Saturday that he has put a halt to a plan to restrict sales of 20 basic food products in Venezuela’s most populous state, a scheme critics had deemed rationing in disguise.

Officials in western Zulia state had said the plan to limit sales of items such as cooking oil, flour, chicken and toilet paper — all of which are subject to price controls — could begin as early as Monday at 65 supermarkets. But they never explained exactly how it would work.

Data on purchases would reside on computer servers to guarantee that individuals did not make multiple purchases of the same item in different supermarkets, they said.

“It’s insane this idea, whoever got into their head, of a computer chip for purchases,” Maduro said in a speech televised on state TV.

Maduro said he asked Gov. Francisco Arias Cardenas, a socialist ally and former military officer, to scrap the planned restrictions on food sales and Arias agreed.

Many considered the plan tantamount to introducing rationing, but officials in Zulia insisted it wasn’t rationing but rather an anti-contraband effort because the goods are more expensive in neighboring Colombia.

Arias told reporters Saturday that “we will continue with our plans against contraband” without specifying how.

Venezuela is plagued by worsening shortages of basic food and medicine and annual inflation that last month topped 35 percent, reaching the highest monthly rate in 17 years.

It’s a predicament many economists blame on currency and price controls coupled with a growing shortage in foreign currency due to falling oil exports and major government spending on social programs on last year during the late President Hugo Chavez’s re-election campaign.

Zulia and the neighboring state of Tachira have in the past two years instituted restrictions on gasoline sales using windshield stickers that include a computer chip.

Venezuela’s subsidized gasoline is so cheap that people can fill their tanks for the regulated price of a quart of milk.

The socialist-run country has the world’s largest oil reserves and relies on petroleum for about 97 percent of its export earnings.

Associated Press Writer Frank Bajak contributed to this report.

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