By Brian Ellsworth
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuela is putting neighborhood committees linked to the ruling Socialist Party in charge of distributing basic foods amid increasingly violent unrest over chronic shortages that have battered the socialist government's popularity.
President Nicolas Maduro's government wants state agencies to buy some 70 percent of food produced in local plants and distribute much of it to the population, which is suffering under a severe recession and triple-digit inflation.
Officials say the system will cut down on smuggling of state-subsidized food by limiting the role of private food distributors, who Maduro accuses of hoarding goods and raising prices as part of an "economic war" against him.
"We need to create a system of distribution that is for the people and autonomous for the people," said Vice President Aristobulo Isturiz in comments broadcast over state media.
But the country's opposition is slamming the plan as a discriminatory rationing system that will worsen hunger and could give Socialist Party sympathizers the power to withhold food from government critics.
They say the committees, known by their Spanish acronym CLAP, violate basic freedoms and do not address the underlying causes of shortages, which include an unproductive economy and artificially low caps on food prices that stimulate smuggling.
The groups, whose full name is Local Committees for Supply and Production, went relatively unnoticed when Maduro first announced their creation in March.
But they became a lightning rod for criticism following rumors that private supermarkets would no longer receive staple goods because these were to be distributed via CLAPs, leading to a protest near the presidential palace in Caracas.
"The government wants to solve this crisis by turning itself into a smuggler of fear and a smuggler of hunger," said Jesus Torrealba, head of the opposition's Democratic Unity coalition.
Government leaders dismiss such criticism as an effort by opposition leaders to protect smugglers and unscrupulous businesses that overcharge for goods. They say CLAPs will not be the sole distributors of food.
"They attack (the CLAPs) because they work," said Isturiz.
BETTER THAN LINES
In the working class community of Araguaney on the outskirts of Caracas, residents on Wednesday lined up to buy bags of groceries that included a chicken, pasta and corn flour for 2,300 bolivars, equivalent to around $2.30 on the black market exchange rate.
"It wasn't very much, but we have to accept it, because right now there's nothing," said Flor Gaviria, 36, who quit working at a pharmacy last year because standing in supermarket lines to buy food was too time-consuming to hold down a job.
"A chicken in the supermarket costs 4,000 bolivars, and you have to practically kill yourself to get it," she said, adding she does not identify with the government or the opposition.
The CLAPs say the sales are supposed to happen every two or three weeks.
The groups' leadership is supposed to be determined by elections carried out by community local councils. An official on Thursday said the Socialist Party and affiliated organizations are the "the underlying structure" of the CLAPS, which she described as political organizations.
A parliamentary commission this week received complaints that local Socialist Party officials have arbitrarily chosen the leaders of some groups.
Subsidized state-run supermarkets financed by oil revenue were among the most appreciated programs of the late President Hugo Chavez's 14-year rule. But oil prices collapsed under his successor Maduro, leaving the OPEC nation with fewer dollars to import food. Local firms have little interest in producing because price controls often require them to sell below cost.
Residents are increasingly turning to black markets where product such as milk or sugar often fetch 10 times the regulated prices, creating a lucrative smuggling business.
Private supermarkets under close watch of the government distribute an increasingly limited number of the products to anxious consumers, some of whom routinely loot shops or try to.
Opposition critics insist the CLAP system is creating opportunities for corruption by public officials and say the only way to tackle shortages and smuggling is to unwind the creaking socialist economic model.
"The CLAPs are legalizing smuggling on the part of public officials," said legislator Olivia Lozano.
(Story corrects first name of Chavez to Hugo from Ugo in 18th paragraph.)
(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by James Dalgleish)