CARACAS, Venezuela — After living through shortages of water, electricity, medicine, banknotes and beer, Venezuelans are now struggling to find one of the most basic foodstuffs of all, unleashing what President Nicolas Maduro has dubbed the "Bread War."
Bread has become all but impossible to find at many Venezuelan bakeries, which say Maduro's socialist government is not importing enough flour for them to make it.
Not so, insists the mustachioed heir to the late Hugo Chavez, who accuses bakeries of hoarding flour to destabilize his government and using it in expensive cakes and pastries rather than cheap, subsidized bread.
Maduro, whose popularity has plummeted amid a crushing three-year recession, has dispatched the army, police and uniformed civilian militias to escort officials from the National Superintendency for the Defense of Socioeconomic Rights in a wave of bakery inspections.
They are hiding the bread from the people," the president said Sunday on his weekly TV program, vowing to crack down on greedy bakers.
"They are going to pay for this, I swear. Those responsible for the Bread War will pay. And don't go around calling it 'political persecution.'"
This week the authorities arrested four people in the crackdown and confiscated two bakeries accused of charging more than the official bread price.
A video posted online by the authorities shows chief inspector Williams Contreras leading one bakery sting.
"There are going to be some arrests here," he said, after finding a sign outside reading "No bread until further notice."
"They had 100 sacks of flour, butter, sugar -- all the essential ingredients inside," he said triumphantly as police arrested the bakery's managers.
Home to the world's largest oil reserves, Venezuela has skidded to the brink of economic collapse as low crude prices have laid bare its overwhelming dependence on its chief export.
Maduro, who was elected to succeed Chavez in 2013 and is fighting efforts to force him from power, blames the crisis on an "economic war" by US-backed business interests.
His opponents blame the failure of 18 years of socialist "revolution" under Maduro and Chavez.
The crisis has left the country torn between die-hard "Chavistas" and an increasingly outraged majority no longer willing to forgive the socialists' excesses in return for government handouts.
Read more: Jamaica Observer