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What's on the shelves of Hugo Chávez's socialist supermarket

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(Read caption) Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez speaks while holding a can of food during his weekly broadcast "Alo Presidente" in the central state of Cojedes, 248 miles (400 km) south of Caracas, on May 16. According to a study by consultancy Mercer, Caracas was in 2009 the most expensive city in Latin America. This is mainly due to food inflation, which accumulated until May an annualized rate of 40.7 percent, one of the highest in the world.

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

For Soledad Ortiz, the Bicentenary megastore in Caracas has everything a supermarket should in a socialist country: plentiful staples at cheap prices.

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“Things cost less here than in other markets across town,” says Ms. Ortiz, loading up her cart with bags of rice that bear the label “Arroz del Alba,” a reference to the alliance that President Hugo Chávez has formed with other leftist countries in the region. Mr. Chávez, who is creating “21st century socialism,” expropriated Exito supermarkets in January, claiming the private-run chain was inflating prices, and hung up banners that boast of “fair prices,” including that of “socialist” ketchup.

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The move comes as Venezuelans complain of shortages of basic food items: Many residents say they often take four or five trips to various markets only to end up with bitter coffee and unbuttered bread. That is why Mari Rondon was shopping at the Bicentenary on a recent day. She heard on the radio that the megastore had butter, milk, and cooking oil and rushed here before they ran out.

But not everyone is happy with the new owners at the local store. Martin Ruiz shops here because it is the closest store to his house, and for him that is better than battling Caracas traffic. “There is no cod, for example, or fine pastas like there used to be,” says Mr. Ruiz, who owns a small tool shop. He says he yearns for the face of a private ownership.

“One might be poor, but still like to eat fine [foods].”