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Published: Saturday March 1, 2014 MYT 6:38:03 AM
Updated: Saturday March 1, 2014 MYT 6:39:17 AM

Venezuela unrest chokes transport, worsens economic woes

CARACAS (Reuters) - Anti-government protests in Venezuela have left some 1,500 trucks that distribute about half the country's vegetables sitting idle in the western city of La Grita, waiting for roads blocked by demonstrators to be re-opened.

That paralysis is worsening already acute shortages of basic foodstuffs and inflation that hit 56 percent in 2013, two of the factors which, ironically, set alight about a month of street protests in the first place.

At least 17 people have been killed in unrest that has posed the most serious challenge yet to socialist President Nicolas Maduro's 10-month-old administration.

Some transport companies have idled trucks due to the threat of violence as protesters face off against security forces at barricades, especially in the western state of Tachira. Others have parked their vehicles in solidarity with the demonstrators.

"It's not just that we could lose our trucks, or their contents, we could lose our lives too," said Freddy Rosales, spokesman for a group of vegetable producers in La Grita. "They (the protesters) already looted one truck and burned a tanker."

La Grita is a central distribution point for Tachira state, which produces about half the fruit and vegetables consumed in Venezuela, a country of some 29 million people.

While student-led opposition protests in the capital Caracas have lost steam this week, confrontations continue in Tachira.

Business leaders estimate that deliveries nationwide of basic goods, including eagerly sought staples such as toilet paper, milk and flour, have fallen to about half their normal level since the start of February because of blocked roads.

"There is an increase in people failing to attend work, and difficulty maintaining normal distribution of consumer goods," Eduardo Garmendia, president of Venezuela's main industrial chamber, Conindustria, told Reuters.

DEJA 'COUP'

Maduro accuses the opposition of waging an "economic war" to try to trigger a coup d'etat like the one in 2002 that briefly toppled his mentor, the late leader Hugo Chavez. Those turbulent days also saw a two-month oil industry strike.

"We lost $20 billion and GDP (gross domestic product) hit the floor," the president told reporters this week, recalling the oil strike. "This is what they want to see again."

In the central state of Carabobo, home to many Venezuelan businesses, barricades have also stopped raw materials reaching factories, and finished products getting out to customers.

"The industries are working at half pace," said Damian del Vescovo, president of the chamber of commerce in Valencia, capital city of Carabobo state.

Hoping that an extended national break for the long Carnival weekend could take the heat out of the demonstrations, Maduro declared Thursday and Friday national holidays too.

Business leaders say that was a mistake.

"Six days off work is a delicate proposition, when we look at the empty shelves," said Carlos Larrazabal, vice-president of national business lobby group Fedecamaras.

"The political decisions the government are taking are going in the opposite direction to how we should solve the shortages."

Venezuela's shopping malls have reduced their opening hours during Carnival, and many businesses in the capital Caracas were closed on Friday, and the streets largely deserted.

The central bank's shortage index, which tracks the availability of staple goods, hit a historic high of 28 percent in January, meaning three out of 10 products were unavailable.

Word of new deliveries, especially of milk, cooking oil and maize flour, spreads fast and leads to huge queues forming outside supermarkets nationwide. The longest lines have been in San Cristobal, capital of Tachira state.

Last week Maduro said he was allocating about $700 million for additional food imports which he said would guarantee the country's supplies for the next four months. But in La Grita, many of the truckers were sceptical that would change much.

"The protests happen suddenly," said Rosales. "One moment the traffic is flowing normally, the next they block the road. It makes you scared they're going to grab the trucks and torch them ... we're hoping this all ends soon."

(Additional reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Javier Farias in San Cristobal and Diego Ore in Caracas; Writing by Daniel Wallis; Editing by James Dalgleish)

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