The Boston Globe
March 31. 2007
Some suspected it has to do with Chavez's friendly ties with Iran & Islamic law
CARACAS, Venezuela --For beer and whiskey-loving Venezuelans, Easter this year won't be an alcohol-soaked drinking fest.
President Hugo Chavez has imposed a ban on alcohol sales during Holy Week in an attempt to reduce accidents and crimes, prompting a run on liquor stores.
The decree prohibits alcohol sales on Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Sunday next week. A more limited ban -- restricting sales to between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., including at restaurants and bars -- went into effect Friday and will last through April 9.
The sudden, unprecedented measure confused many Venezuelans who raced to stash up before Friday, thinking that would be their last chance to buy for more than a week.
"People are desperate, above all because the majority found out at the last minute," said Jose Manuel Fernandes, a liquor store owner in Caracas, as he struggled to meet the demands of dozens of customers yelling for bottles and cases of their preferred drink.
Industry figures show that Venezuela is among the top producers and consumers of beer in Latin America, while whiskey and rum are also popular spirits. Despite laws that prohibit the consumption of alcohol in public areas, Venezuelans can often be seen drinking on street corners or sometimes even driving with a beer in hand.
Close to a hundred deaths and thousands of injuries are reported every year during the Easter holiday, which authorities attribute largely to alcohol consumption.
Chavez has a tendency to enforce his views on the public: Enraged by the sight of children unloading beer crates in the slums, he ordered beer trucks off the street last year. Some suspected the latest measure has more to do with Chavez's friendly ties with Iran, where Islamic law forbids alcohol.
"I got nervous. I thought Chavez had prohibited the sale of liquor seeing how he talks about Cuba, socialism and the (Iranian) ayatollahs," Enrique Salazar, 67, said Friday after buying three bottles of whiskey to last him through the holiday.
"I don't drive so I'm not a danger to anybody," Salazar said. "Instead of prohibiting (sales), they should throw drunks who drive in jail."
Police rarely crack down on public alcohol consumption or screen drivers for drinking.
The majority of Venezuelans show strong support for Chavez, who has said he wants to lead a socialist revolution in the country. But they have been less enthusiastic about his attempts to curb drinking, including his announcement in October banning the beer trucks that sell alcohol directly on the street.
Chavez reassured the public at the time he had no plans to forbid alcohol in Venezuela, but he passionately warned about the dangers of excessive alcohol consumption, blaming it for a degeneration of society.