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Venezuela's Bread Wars: With Food Scarce, Government Accuses Bakers Of Hoarding

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A bakery worker grabs a bags of bread in Caracas, Venezuela, last month. Venezuelan bakeries are the latest industry to find themselves in the cross-hairs of President Nicolas Maduros administration, as bread lines grow in the capital Caracas. The government has ordered bakers to use scarce supplies of flour to produce price-controlled loaves.

Venezuela is in the midst of a war — a bread war. That's according to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. Amid a severe economic crisis, his government is dealing with widespread food shortages. Now, even bread is hard to find.

In a recent speech, Maduro accused bakers of waging a "bread war against the Venezuelan people."

Maduro claims that bakers are hoarding flour and using it to make more profitable brownies and cookies rather than bread. All this, Maduro contends, is part of a broader effort by private business owners to sabotage the economy and bring down his government.

In response, officials over the past month have seized numerous bakeries and arrested their owners during police operations.

Meanwhile, those bakers still in business scramble to find the flour their livelihood depends on. That includes people like Carlos Coelho, who has run the Latina bakery in Caracas for the last 15 years. On a recent day, he started making bread at 7 a.m. Outside the bakery, a line begins to form long before the bread is ready.

Coelho will only churn out about 500 French-style baguettes on this day. He would make more bread if he could, but he's down to his last few 100-pound sacks of flour.

"I need at least 150 sacks per week," Coelho says. "But last week I received just 26."

The flour is made from wheat imported by Venezuela's socialist government, which holds vast control over the economy. But due to a cash crunch, the Maduro government is importing only about 25 percent of the wheat that the country needs, according to the Venezuelan Bread Makers Federation.

Coelho defends bakers against Maduro's accusations of flour hoarding. He explains that due to price controls, bread must be sold at a loss — for about 20 U.S. cents per loaf. So, like other bakery owners, he reserves some flour for pizza and pastries that he can sell at market prices to help keep his business afloat.

At midday, Latina workers pull the baguettes from the oven and dump them into bins. The smell drifts into the street and the people in line push forward. Coelho allows just five customers into the store at once. They've been waiting in line for two hours, and they are allowed just two baguettes each. In exchange for bread, two policemen monitor the crowd in case fights break out.

Another line forms at the cash register. Turns out, there's also a cash shortage in Venezuela. So, shoppers pay for almost everything — even 20 cents worth of French bread — with credit cards.

Within 40 minutes, the baguettes are sold out. But it could be a while before Coelho has any more to offer.

As the crowd in the bakery thins out he declares: "We have no more flour to make bread."

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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