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Venezuela struggles with getting basic goods under Chavez’s successor
Venezuela » The “socialist” economy is unable to supply consumer goods because of crumbling local currency and a shortage of U.S. dollars.

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But if the president’s fiscal policies are anything like his response to rising crime, the country looks to be in trouble.

The Jan. 6 roadside killing of former Miss Venezuela Monica Spear in a botched robbery attempt jolted a country long-numbed by one of the world’s highest homicide rates and near-total criminal impunity. Fear is so widespread that shopping mall kiosks offer "Express Armoring" for motorists who want their vehicles bulletproofed, fast.

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Despite calls for an overhaul of Venezuela’s woeful police forces, Maduro said violent soap operas were to blame and warned broadcasters to clean up their content.

Most Venezuelans are too busy just trying to secure the basics. Residents from the country’s interior say the shortages are even worse outside the capital.

"There’s nothing to buy where we live," said Maria Valencia, a preschool teacher from the oil-producing hub of Maracaibo, near Venezuela’s western border, while shopping at a government-run Bicentenario supermarket where products sold by recently nationalized companies carried little heart symbols and the phrase "Made in Socialism."

Valencia and three family members had filled their cart with corn oil, four bottles each, the maximum. "This stuff is gold," she said.

Shoppers here were more inclined to blame the scarcities on badly behaved countrymen whom they said were trying to profit from the situation.

"All Venezuelans are to blame for this," said Jeanpierre Sifontes with a shrug, his cart loaded with cooking oil, discount beef imported from Brazil and two Sony-brand karaoke machines.

"We need something to do at night because it’s too dangerous to go out," Sifontes said.

Maduro, like Chavez, still counts on the broad support of the poor Venezuelans who have benefited from a reallocation of the country’s oil wealth, such as the new government apartment towers all over Caracas, the city’s expanding subway system and even cable-car gondolas to ferry poor favela dwellers high up into the hillside slums.

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But with the country’s economy wobbling and inflation falling heaviest on the poor, Maduro isn’t taking any chances, and many of his recent moves have put military officers in key government posts.

As a former paratrooper, Chavez didn’t need to prove his mettle to the country’s armed forces, said Margarita Lopez, a political analyst in Caracas. But Maduro is less secure and seems to be trying to win loyalty by steering more power and resources to the military.

"The military was never this visible under Chavez," Lopez said. "It’s going to be a very difficult year."

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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