Looting leaves stores in ruins in Venezuela’s Ciudad Bolivar
CIUDAD BOLIVAR, Venezuela: Crowds gathered Monday outside the few supermarkets in Ciudad Bolivar that survived massive looting over the sudden decision to yank the most widely used currency note from circulation, as the city in Venezuela’s interior tried to return to normality.
The weekend violence left dozens of businesses destroyed or damaged, and streets were still full of trash, rubble and burned motorcycles from the protests and looting.
Hundreds of police and soldiers have been deployed to the streets of Ciudad Bolivar, a riverside city of about 700,000 residents, but many stores remained closed as of midday due to fears of more looting.
Austerio Gonzalez, president of the local Chamber of Commerce and Industry, estimated that about 80 percent of stores that sell food in the city were ransacked. He said those still standing found large crowds outside their doors Monday and were waiting for authorities to guarantee security before opening.
More than 350 businesses were looted between Friday and Sunday in Ciudad Bolivar, according to business sector estimates, along with 200 more in seven southeastern cities. Dozens of people were injured and four killed in the unrest.
The businesses targeted included supermarkets, liquor and hardware stores, auto dealerships and shops selling tires and car parts. Gonzalez said business leaders were talking with regional authorities about setting up special storage and distribution facilities to reduce crowding at the stores that survived.
Bolivar state Gov. Francisco Rangel Gomez said Sunday evening that 3,200 police officers were deployed to restore order, and 262 people were arrested in the state. Gonzalez confirmed that 700 members of the national guard also arrived in Ciudad Bolivar. Protests and looting broke out in Ciudad Bolivar and elsewhere over President Nicolas Maduro’s sudden decision to scrap the 100 bolivar note, the largest and most widely used in Venezuela despite being worth just a few U.S. cents at the black market rate.
The announcement also touched off long bank lines, a surge in electronic payments and widespread fears by poorer people with no bank accounts and all their savings in the doomed bills. Cash transactions such as buying food or gasoline became extremely difficult. Over the weekend Maduro announced that the deadline for pulling the 100 bolivar notes out of circulation would be postponed until Jan. 2 because purported saboteurs had prevented the arrival of three airplanes carrying newly printed, larger-denomination bills from abroad. He did not provide details about the alleged plot.
A plane arrived Sunday from Sweden with 13.5 million new 500 bolivar notes, but it has not been announced when they will enter circulation. Maduro called the decision to scrap the bill an economic triumph over the country’s enemies. In a national broadcast Sunday the president said the action had flooded banks with currency deposited by Venezuelans racing to get rid of the paper bills while also devastating Colombian-border currency traders he blames for the bolivar’s precipitous plunge in value against the US dollar.
Maduro also extended through Jan. 2 the closure of Venezuela’s borders with Colombia and Brazil. Among those affected are about a hundred Brazilians who have been unable to return to their country.
Venezuela has been wracked by an economic crisis with soaring inflation and shortages of food and other commercial goods. Most economists blame the woes on price controls and falling prices for oil exports, as well as heavy government spending and production-crippling policies that gave Venezuelans lots of 100 bolivar notes but little to buy with them. — AP