Venezuela Is Running Out Of Beer Amid Severe Economic Crisis : The Salt The country's largest beer producer, Empresas Polar, halted operations because the government restricted access to imported barley. But the president has pinned the entire food crisis on Polar.
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Venezuela Is Running Out Of Beer Amid Severe Economic Crisis

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Venezuela Is Running Out Of Beer Amid Severe Economic Crisis

Venezuela Is Running Out Of Beer Amid Severe Economic Crisis

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ARI SHAPIRO: In Venezuela, shortages of milk, meat, bread and other staples have led to riots and looting. There's also another shortage of beer. The government has responded by attacking a company - Venezuela's largest food producer. John Otis reports.

JOHN OTIS, BYLINE: Lorenzo Mendoza is chief executive of the Venezuelan food giant Empresas Polar which was founded in 1941 and is now the country's largest private company.

LORENZO MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mendoza has just arrived at Polar's shuttered brewery in Caracas. He greets idle workers and tries to boost their morale.

MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Thousands of Polar employees have been furloughed since April. That's when all four of the company's breweries shut down due to a lack of malted barley. The government controls access to foreign currency, but Mendoza says it has refused to provide the dollars Polar needs to import barley.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in Spanish).

OTIS: As Mendoza leaves, Polar workers break into a chant - raw materials now because we want to work. Although home to the largest oil reserves in the world, Venezuela has fallen on very hard times. Petroleum prices have plummeted, but many analysts blame the government's socialist policies.

For example, Polar also makes flour, pasta, oatmeal, yogurt, canned tuna and soft drinks, but price controls and the expropriation of farms and businesses have driven down production of milk, sugar and other raw materials that Polar needs. Many of its processing plants are running at half speed, making food shortages worse. But President Nicolas Maduro is trying to pin the crisis on Polar.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Government TV spots claim without evidence that the company is deliberately scaling back food production to sabotage the economy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

NICOLAS MADURO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a February speech, Maduro called Polar's Mendoza a thief and a traitor and said, "if you can't run your company, turn it over to the people, and they will run it."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: Mendoza says he's baffled by the attacks.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MENDOZA: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: In a TV interview, he pointed out that left-wing governments in Nicaragua, Bolivia and Ecuador have all embraced the private sector. Although these countries lack Venezuela's massive oil wealth, Mendoza pointed out that their economies are growing. David Smilde, a Venezuela expert at Tulane University, says private food companies like Polar have helped to prevent the total collapse of Venezuela.

DAVID SMILDE: I think it's actually remarkable that things aren't worse, and I think it's largely because there are some producers that are committed enough to Venezuela that they want to continue operating.

OTIS: For many when Venezuelans, trying to unplug from all these problems by popping open a beer is no longer possible. Polar used to produce 80 percent of Venezuela's beer. The supply is rapidly drying up.

As he fills a refrigerator with beer at his bodega in downtown Caracas, Leonardo Cordero says he's placed a purchase limit of three 9-ounce bottles per customer.

LEONARDO CORDERO: (Speaking Spanish).

OTIS: "I still have 50 cases, but that's nothing," he says. "That will be gone in two weeks." For NPR News, I'm John Otis, Caracas, Venezuela.

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