By Alexandra Ulmer
CARACAS (Reuters) - Mobs gathered outside some Caracas supermarkets on Saturday after the government ordered shops to slash prices, creating chaos as desperate Venezuelans leapt at the chance to buy cheaper food as the country's worsening economy causes severe shortages.
The leftist administration of President Nicolas Maduro ordered more than 200 supermarkets to cut prices back to last month’s levels - a tall order in a country where many prices change daily due to the world's fastest inflation rate.
News of the discounts spread like wildfire, leading hundreds to mass in front of stores before daybreak. When one major supermarket in wealthier eastern Caracas did not open for hours, people began pounding on the storefront.
"We're hungry! We want food!" screamed the crowd, which included babies, pensioners and children with disabilities.
“This scares me, but what can I do?” said Francisco Guaita, a carpenter hoping to find food for his three children, over the shouts and pushes. “This is the worst government. We want Maduro out.”
Critics say Maduro is playing with fire in the oil-rich nation, where millions are unable to eat three square meals a day and malnutrition is on the rise, saying his policy will dissuade supermarkets from stocking their shelves and could trigger looting.
The socialist, who was narrowly elected to replace the late Hugo Chavez in 2013, counters that he is a victim of a U.S.-led “economic war” in which businesses hoard food and stoke prices to destabilize his government.
The state agency in charge of ensuring “fair prices” ordered some 214 supermarkets owned by 26 chains to drop their prices, pro-government newspaper Ultimas Noticias reported on Saturday.
“This Tuesday we received an accusation and we deployed immediately. We confirmed that the big chains were increasing prices without any justification, because they were doing it for products that were in stock, not new ones,” William Contreras, the head of the agency known as Sundde, told the paper.
Several Venezuelans interviewed in line outside the supermarket in eastern Caracas said they thought Maduro’s policies were a disaster. But they still planned to take advantage of lower prices because they were not able to properly feed their families otherwise.
"It’s bad policy. But we have to eat," said Edgar Romero, a 45-year-old drummer who supported Chavez but said he has soured on Maduro, as he stood in line under the sizzling sun.
Armed National Guard soldiers later arrived at the store and ordered people into clear lines, warning that they would not be allowed in otherwise. They eventually let the crowd through in small groups just before midday, but people quickly emerged disappointed as only crackers and washing liquid were discounted.
“I can’t feed my kids with this,” said Jesus Gudino, a 29-year-old moto-taxi driver and father of three, sneering at the small plastic bag in his hand. “I’ve been here since 4 a.m. This is a mockery. What can I do? I have to leave this country.”
(Additional reporting by Andreina Aponte; Editing by Bill Trott and Bill Rigby)