Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro said he would take “the most radical measures to protect our people's economy” as a deadline for businesses to adhere to new price controls approaches.
“We will expropriate whatever needs to be expropriated,” Maduro said during a February 4 speech in Caracas amid commemorations of the 22nd anniversary of a 1992 failed military rebellion.
The coup was led by Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez. Although he was jailed for the insurrection, Chavez became a popular figure with the poor majority. He won the 1998 presidential elections by a landslide.
Maduro has pledged to continue the socialist revolution begun during Chavez's presidency. “I'm determined to make an economic revolution,” he said. “Nobody, nothing will stop me.”
During his speech, Maduro said businesses had until February 10 to fully comply with new price controls.
The Law for the Control of Fair Costs, Prices and Profits came into effect nationwide on January 23. However, businesses were given a grace period to adhere to the new controls.
Under the law, profit margins are restricted to a maximum of 30%, though specific regulations vary between sectors, products and geographic areas. The law also imposes new penalties for economic crimes such as hoarding and price speculation ― both punishable by up to a decade in jail.
Three new offences are also added under the law: economic destabilisation, unauthorised resale of certain products and a new category of corruption.
Other offences listed under the law include usury, product tampering, price tampering, smuggling and speculation.
Maduro urged the private sector to voluntarily comply with the new law by self-regulating prices.
“Next Monday, if companies are found violating the fair prices law, I will implement the most radical measures [yet],” the president warned.
However, within hours of the speech Venezuela's largest commercial lobby group declared it was planning a legal challenge to the new law.
Venezuelan Federation of Chambers of Commerce (Fedecamaras) president Jorge Roig said the law imposes undue restrictions on businesses.
“Not only is it unconstitutional, but also makes the situation of the country dramatically worse,” Roig said, conservative newspaper El Universal reported
Roig said: “In a meeting of the board of directors, it was unanimously decided to take legal actions to request the annulment of the Law on Costs and Fair Prices.”
During his speech, Maduro also declared that a “shock” plan would be launched to tackle smugglers.
“The Bolivarian National Armed Forces will continue to be deployed throughout the country, confronting the economic war that we have been attacked by since last year,” Maduro said.
In the morning before his speech, security forces uncovered a smuggler's “warehouse with thousands of products, food and blankets” near the Colombian border, Maduro said. “The boss who was responsible has been arrested, and will pay with 14 years in prison.”
About 30 tonnes of contraband flour and 110,000 litres of diesel fuel were also recently seized in the border state of Zulia, local police reported.
Zulia state deputy police chief Cesar Augusto Martínez said: “It's assumed that the fuel would have been transferred to a neighbouring country.”
National Assembly head Diosdado Cabello said that between 30 and 40% of Venezuela's imported and domestically made food products are smuggled to Colombia, where they are sold at higher prices.
The president has labelled smugglers part of an “economic war” that he says is driving inflation and scarcity of consumer goods. Products ranging from corn flour to dish washing soap have been scarce in some parts of the country in recent weeks.
[Abridged from Venezuela Analysis.]