- Fights and thefts are reported as people look for bread
- Strikes, protests and government currency policy are blamed
- Government says some people are smuggling food into Colombia to sell at higher prices
- 22 merchants have been arrested and accused of hoarding
Shoppers in Venezuela know that shortages of staples like cornmeal, milk and chicken are a harsh reality of life, but now -- amid violent protests and strikes -- shortages have spread to that most basic of basics: bread.
Lines are forming, and fights have broken out outside bakeries as politicians and business leaders point fingers.
In recent days, people have had to wait in line for hours under the scorching sun. Ricardo Rodriguez, a Caracas resident waiting for the chance to buy bread, described the queues as "extraordinary."
"It's like embarking on an odyssey," he said.
The problem stems from labor, social unrest and currency regulation that ties to difficulties importing raw ingredients, according to Tomas Ramos Lopez, president of the Venezuelan Federation of Bread Producers.
Ramos told CNN en Español that the problem started last year when a strike stopped production at a flour mill in Monagas state that supplies 35% of all the flour in Venezuela.
Another problem, Ramos said, is all of Venezuela's wheat is imported from Canada, the United States and Argentina, and tight government-dictated currency controls have left producers in a situation where they don't have the dollars needed to import wheat.
A third problem, according to Ramos, has been social unrest. Violent anti-government protests in the past three months have disrupted distribution of flour. Bakers cannot get the raw ingredient in several cities across the country, especially San Cristobal, Valencia, Barquisimeto and Caracas, the capital.
The government blames the shortage on unscrupulous merchants and bakery owners who hoard their products in order to make a profit by selling at higher prices on the black market.
But Ramos said, "I believe that the national industry and the laws in Venezuela have to be changed. (Government officials) need to know the difference between hoarding and having inventory."
Venezuela regulates the price of bread, but neighboring Colombia doesn't. Officials say this creates a smuggling problem in border states, where food bought at Venezuela's artificially low prices can be taken across the border and sold at higher market prices.
The situation has turned chaotic in at least a couple of places. A surveillance video posted online shows a group of men breaking into a bakery at night in the city of Maracay to steal bread and whatever else they can carry. Another video on YouTube shows people fighting for bags of flour outside a store.
Luis Narvaez, a Caracas resident, explained the shortage problems in a simple way. "I would like to eat arepas (cornmeal flatbread, a national dish in Venezuela) but can't because there's no cornmeal. I would like to eat fried eggs, but there's no cooking oil."
Ramos says the supply of wheat flour is down 30% in cities like Merida, El Tigre and El Vigia and states like Tachira. In Amazonas state, he says, the shortage level is at 60%.
Some financial analysts like Orlando Ochoa say price regulation is at the heart of the problem. Ochoa told CNN affiliate Globovision that artificially low prices discourage production and, therefore, supply.
"The government tries to be pragmatic by not raising prices, which is a popular move. So what they do is focus their attention at the end of the production process, controlling prices to give the appearance they're doing something about this problem," Ochoa said.
The Venezuelan government is now focusing on enforcement. This month, 22 merchants were detained and accused of hoarding products and not complying with price regulations.
In February, President Nicolas Maduro called on all Venezuelans to reduce consumption to alleviate the shortages. "We need to stabilize consumption," he said, "as part of a new socially conscious behavior so that we avoid extreme consumerism made possible by the purchasing power the Venezuelan families now have."
But the opposition says these measures are a smokescreen that hides the real problem: failed socialist economic policies that have discouraged production and drive away foreign investment.