Venezuelans line up for milk in latest shortage

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CARACAS, Oct 24 (Reuters) The shoppers stood for up to three hours in a Caracas supermarket, queuing past refrigerators of smoked salmon and shelves of imported wine, but they weren't looking for luxury products - they just wanted milk.

Housewives have started making early morning trips to grocery stores in search of basic products like eggs and chicken that periodically disappear from shelves amid booming demand and price controls enforced by President Hugo Chavez's government.

''This is distressing, I can't believe the number of people in line to buy milk,'' said Lesbia Arocha, a housewife, after waiting two hours in the eastern Caracas supermarket line. ''I've never seen this in Venezuela.'' Milk is the latest product that Venezuelans are scrambling to get, following earlier shortages this year of goods including black beans and white sugar that have slowly returned to store shelves.

Chavez imposed price controls on basic food products in 2003 in an effort to protect the poor majority as part of his self-described socialist revolution, and blames the long lines on media exaggeration and hoarding by unscrupulous businesses.

But businesses leaders counter the price controls are stifling private investment and in some cases require supermarkets and producers to sell goods at a loss, causing blockages in the supply chain.

''This is humiliating, I've been here since seven in the morning, and after hours they only give me one liter (1 quart) of milk,'' said one man who stood at the register grumbling as he paid 0.90 dollar for his milk.

Chavez, first elected in 1998, is overwhelmingly popular for spending the OPEC nation's oil income on the poor majority.

Supporters say part of the reason for the shortage is that millions of poor Venezuelans who previously did not have the money to buy meat and dairy products are now consuming them in greater quantities.

But economists say Chavez's heavy spending has sparked a consumption boom that leaves Venezuelans with access to goods like 18-year-old imported whiskey but at times short of eggs or chicken.

Some of the shoppers in the wealthy eastern part of the city, glaring in anger or yawning from the early hour, slammed Chavez's policies for causing the sporadic shortages.

Others avoided political commentary and simply tried to stay warm next to the chill of freezers or rested their legs by sitting on the floor.

Outside the supermarket, Luis Thilen expressed outrage that he could not find milk despite visiting 10 supermarkets in eastern Caracas.

''This is a disaster,'' he said. ''I've got two daughters and I've spent two weeks trying to get milk every day.'' REUTERS ARB RAI0840

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