Venezuela supermarket scramble mixes dearth with gourmet
* Staple foods go scarce, luxury goods easy to find
* Price controls, panic purchases leave some shelves bare
* Government says merchants hoarding food to destabilize
CARACAS, Jan 25 (Reuters) - A supermarket in a posh district of Caracas is barren of wheat flour but well stocked with gourmet cream-filled sweetbread imported from Italy. Sugar is nowhere to be found, but sweeteners such as Equal and Splenda take its place on shelves.
In a working class district, shoppers struggle to find chicken, even though shrimp is readily available.
Periodic product shortages have become a fact of life under socialist President Hugo Chavez, who has not been seen since undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba seven weeks ago.
But in Venezuela's distorted oil-driven economy, it's the staple products that go scarce while luxury goods and niche-market items are easy to find.
"You can find 18-year whiskey on any street corner. The problem is finding the basic goods," said Iris Moreno, 63, a retired economist. "Somebody walks by with a shopping bag and you say 'Is that yellow stuff corn flour?' And they say, 'Yes ma'am, hurry before it runs out!"'
Under price controls created by Chavez, merchants can be fined or jailed for selling products such as milk, cooking oil and corn flour - crucial for making pancake-like "arepas" that are a staple in Venezuela - for more than the price set by the state.
But they are free to sell champagne, basmati rice or truffle oil at the price they please, leaving supermarkets and corner stores stocked with a range of goods that many consumers have no use nor budget for.
The scramble for basic staples often requires visiting several stores to find products and waiting in long lines. Many simply do without some types of food.
The situation is a far cry from the famine-inducing dearth portrayed by shrill opposition activists. But it is a growing annoyance even for Chavez supporters who say his self-styled revolution has helped share oil revenue with the poor.
And it is emblematic of the travails of an oil-rich nation that for decades has ensured access to the latest consumer goods and fine liquors, while struggling to create functioning police forces, hospitals and sewers.
"Money is not the problem. On the contrary, the problem is that there is too much money and not enough products to sell," said Ismael Perez, executive president of the industry group Conindustria.
Business leaders say Chavez's absence has slowed key policy decisions that could improve supplies. They include a possible devaluation of the bolivar currency, which would make more dollars available for imports, and revisions to price controls that would let merchants raise prices.
MONEY AMPLE, GOODS SCARCE
Venezuelans are consummate consumers both because the country's long tradition of oil wealth, and because double-digit inflation makes saving futile. Blowout Christmas spending routinely triggers a breakdown of the stretched supply chain.
Shortages in December reached their highest level since April 2008, the central bank said this month.
Many bakeries - a mainstay of Venezuelan daily life that offer fresh bread, deli meats, coffee and cakes - are now limiting customers to one or two loaves due to lack of flour.
Others, like Macropan in the poor Caracas neighborhood of La Vega, simply have none to offer.
"I can get a kilo or two of flour from the grocery store, but it's just not enough," said Ricardo Sousa, 41, Macropan's part-owner and manager. Soft drinks, U.S. breakfast cereals and much-loved hazelnut chocolate candies sat on shelves surrounding the glaringly empty bread bin.
The government blames the situation on hoarding by merchants seeking to manipulate supplies to make a quick buck, and it has vowed to step up inspections.
"In this middle of this situation with the health of President Chavez, they want to create uncertainty in the population, so they say they don't have products when they really do," said Zahira Velasquez, a 23-year-old student.
A Reuters reporter asking about wheat flour at one supermarket was tipped off by a security guard that new supplies had just arrived. It turned out to be a false alarm: the product was in fact pre-sweetened pancake mix.
Nervous shoppers add to the problem by snatching up more than they require each time supplies dwindle.
"People are creating the shortages themselves. As soon as a load of corn flour arrives, people run to buy more than they need," said Alicia Blanco, 57, a housewife leaving a supermarket after struggling to find detergent, toilet paper and butter.
"It's very annoying, but it's not causing hunger."
(Editing by Daniel Wallis, Kieran Murray and Jackie Frank)