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Venezuela 'occupies' stores, causing shopping frenzy

| Saturday, Nov. 9, 2013, 7:54 p.m.

CARACAS — As soon as Dorisbell Pena received a text message informing her that President Nicolas Maduro had seized control of a nationwide chain of appliance stores on Friday, she rushed to the nearest outlet in the hope of finding what's become one of the scarcest items of all these days in Venezuela: a bargain.

A 34-year-old teacher, Pena has watched as the price of a new stove she needs has doubled in recent weeks to 40,000 bolivars even as her 2,500 bolivar-a-month salary stays the same.

“I've got to take advantage of this opportunity today because tomorrow the prices keep going up,” Pena said while huddled among friends on the concrete sidewalk outside the Tiendas Daka store in the eastern Caracas neighborhood of Bello Monte.

She's not alone. At 1:30 a.m., shoppers were still arriving to join the hundreds who began amassing in the afternoon after price inspectors said they found evidence of “usury” and Maduro ordered the chain's “occupation.” In a televised address on Friday night, the president vowed to reopen the stores on Saturday and unload their stock of plasma televisions, washing machines and other seized merchandise at “fair prices.”

“Leave nothing on the shelves, leave nothing in the warehouses,” he said.

The Friday night frenzy, described by one bargain hunter as an “organized looting,” cut across Venezuela's normally insurmountable political divide — a reflection of how near-record 54 percent inflation and shortages of basic goods such as milk and toilet paper are affecting all families in South America's biggest oil producer.

In a bid to bring down prices that have jumped in tandem with demand for dollars on the black market, Maduro on Wednesday tightened controls on currency transactions. With hard-fought municipal elections approaching next month, he also ordered the military to shut down businesses found hoarding products or speculating on prices.

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