Venezuelan President decrees emergency, seizes factories

CARACAS • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro announced a sweeping crackdown under a new emergency decree, ordering the seizure of paralysed factories, the arrest of their owners and military exercises to counter alleged foreign threats.

The embattled leftist is struggling to contain a raging economic crisis that has led to food shortages, soaring prices, riots, looting and vigilante justice, pushing Venezuela to the brink of collapse.

He accused the United States last Friday of destabilising the country at the behest of the "fascist Venezuelan right", prompting him to declare a state of emergency.

Addressing his supporters at a rally in central Caracas last Saturday, Mr Maduro announced some of the actions to be taken under the decree, which has not yet been published. "We must take all measures to recover productive capacity, which is being paralysed by the bourgeoisie," he told the cheering, red-clad crowd. "Anyone who wants to halt (production) to sabotage the country should get out, and those who do must be handcuffed and sent to the PGV (Venezuelan General Penitentiary)."

The move comes after the largest food and beverage company in Venezuela, the Polar Group, halted production of beer on April 30, saying government mismanagement meant it was no longer able to import barley.

The company's owner, billionaire businessman Lorenzo Mendoza, is a vocal opponent of Mr Maduro, and the President has accused him of conspiring against his government.

Mr Maduro also ordered military exercises this Saturday "to prepare ourselves for any scenario", denouncing alleged plans for an "armed intervention".

Opposition leaders accused Mr Maduro of using an emergency decree to destabilise the country and block them from organising a referendum on removing him from office. The opposition has launched the process by collecting 1.8 million signatures in favour of a recall vote, but say the authorities are now stalling.

Venezuela has the world's largest oil reserves, but is mired in a crippling recession exacerbated by an electricity crisis that has forced the government to decree daily power cuts across most of the country, close schools on Fridays and reduce the workweek to two days for government employees.

Mr Maduro regularly blames US and local business interests for what his administration calls an "economic war" on oil-dependent Venezuela, whose economy has sunk in tandem with global crude prices.

Venezuela's economy contracted 5.7 per cent last year and its official inflation rate topped 180 per cent.

Mr Maduro said last Friday that a plot against his government was being "activated in Washington, requested and pushed by elements of the fascist Venezuelan right".

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 16, 2016, with the headline 'Venezuelan President decrees emergency, seizes factories'. Print Edition | Subscribe