November 30, 2007 / 7:13 PM / 10 years ago

Venezuela makes stink over toilet paper hoarding

CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan businesses spent years conspiring against President Hugo Chavez, but the government now says they have found a new way to play dirty -- hiding toilet paper to sway Sunday’s vote on expanding Chavez’s powers.

Venezuelans have been buying large amounts of toilet paper on rumours it could be the next hard-to-find thing amid shortages of products like milk and meat that businesses attribute to price controls but the government blames on high demand and hoarding.

“We know there are sectors that are hiding toilet paper,” Finance Minister Rodrigo Cabezas told state television on Friday. “A group of business leaders are playing mean, playing dirty ... of course trying to create the sensation of product shortage during the elections.”

Some shoppers in supermarkets and pharmacies visited by Reuters on Friday had filled shopping carts with toilet paper, and shelves carrying the product were only half stocked.

Polls show Chavez, accustomed to easily winning elections, in a close fight to win approval for a constitutional overhaul that would let him run indefinitely for re-election, control currency reserves and censor media in political emergencies.

Business leaders, who led a botched 2002 coup against Chavez, say price controls have created nagging shortages of staple products.

This has forced shoppers into long lines to buy products or pay inflated prices, eating into Chavez’s traditionally high approval ratings before the referendum.

Venezuelans typically make nervous purchases before elections, worried that a disputed vote could lead to violence.

Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Patricia Rondon Espin; editing by Hugh Bronstein and Eric Beech

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