Miguel Gutierrez/AFP/Getty Images
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (shown here in Caracas on July 3) has announced plans to take over part of Empresas Polar, the country's best-known company. But there is opposition to the move.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez (shown here in Caracas on July 3) has announced plans to take over part of Empresas Polar, the country's best-known company. But there is opposition to the move. Miguel Gutierrez/AFP/Getty Images
In Venezuela, socialist President Hugo Chavez wants the state to take over part of Empresas Polar, a food and beer conglomerate known to every Venezuelan.
Chavez has nationalized oil companies, cement makers and supermarkets during his 12 years in office. But plans to seize some of Polar's operations have run into a stiff opposition — and that's exposed the shortcomings in state takeovers of private industry.
Chavez has cast his fight with Polar as an epic struggle. Earlier this year, in a speech in the city of Barquisimeto in northwestern Venezuela — where the company has extensive operations — he mocked Polar and its leader.
The president said Polar's owner, Lorenzo Mendoza, one of Latin America's wealthiest men, would have to pack up and leave. Mendoza won't get to heaven because he is ricachon — so very rich, Chavez said.
And Chavez threatened to nationalize all of Polar: 30,000 workers, 14 plants and 75 distribution centers.
So far, though, the government has only moved against Polar's warehouses in Barquisimeto.
But the expropriation order, signed in April, has garnered much attention nationwide because Polar is Venezuela's best-known company. One commercial touts the pre-cooked flour that Polar has made for 50 years. It's used for the cornmeal cakes that are a Venezuelan staple. Polar also makes beer, pasta and butter.
One of its key operations — a distribution point for beer and other beverages — is in an industrial zone of Barquisimeto, the country's fourth-largest city.
There, in vast warehouses, hundreds of workers load beer onto trucks. They have heard the government say it's the state that treats workers best. But they're not buying that argument.
Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images
Lorenzo Mendoza (shown here in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2009) is CEO of Empresas Polar. He is one of Latin America's wealthiest men.
Lorenzo Mendoza (shown here in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2009) is CEO of Empresas Polar. He is one of Latin America's wealthiest men. Vanderlei Almeida/AFP/Getty Images
Juan Tacoa, head of one of the two unions at Polar's warehouses in Barquisimeto, says the workers oppose the president. Tacoa says workers in nationalized companies have fared badly — unable to bargain collectively and seeing their wages slashed.
Tacoa had once supported Chavez. But he, like other workers, says Polar provides good wages and benefits.
Chavez has reacted angrily to Tacoa. He has called Polar's union leaders lackeys of the rich.
"Who are they defending? Those who exploit the people, the bourgeoisie," he said.
Robert Bottome, the American-born editor of Veneconomia, a Caracas business journal, says the opposite is true.
"It sounds corny, but this is a company which has been treating its workers right for 70 years and it's been treating its customers right for 70 years," he says.
The controversy over Polar comes at an awkward time for Chavez and his socialist policies. Domestic food production has fallen during his tenure and imports have sharply increased. In a country that takes pride in being one of the world's major oil producers, food shortages have plagued some areas and high prices are pinching consumers.
Polar officials declined to talk about the struggle with Chavez and a presidential plan to replace the warehouses in Barquisimeto with apartment buildings.
But Polar workers told NPR that they feared what would happen to their jobs in a government takeover. They know that once an expropriation order has been signed the government can swoop in and seize property.
On a recent night, Yoh Guerrero settled in for a long night of dominoes with other workers. Guerrero said they would guard the gates all night long to stop the government from storming the warehouses.
"The workers fear for their jobs," he said, "And that's why they're prepared to defend them."