By Andrew Cawthorne
CARACAS (Reuters) - President Nicolas Maduro's government announced arrests of both store managers and looters on Sunday as part of what it calls an "economic war" in Venezuela between the socialist state and unscrupulous businessmen.
In a major pre-Christmas offensive reminiscent of the late President Hugo Chavez's dramatic style, Maduro has sent soldiers to "occupy" one chain of electronics stores and inspectors into scores of others to check for price-gouging.
Thousands of Venezuelans have been flocking to electronics stores, hoping to take advantage of new "fair prices" the government is imposing, sometimes half the previous cost.
However, scenes of looting on Saturday at a store belonging to the occupied electronics chain, Daka, have left many Venezuelans ashamed and fueled opposition claims that Maduro is stirring chaos rather than defending the poor.
Authorities announced that five managers, from the local Daka, JVG and Krash, would be prosecuted on charges of unjustified price hikes after importing products with dollars obtained at the official exchange rate of 6.3 bolivars.
Officials have displayed for cameras TV's, washing-machines and air-conditioning units whose prices they say have been hiked 1,000 percent or more by get-rich-quick businessmen.
Many shop owners justify this year's spiraling prices - annual inflation has hit 54 percent - by saying they are forced to buy greenbacks for imports on an illegal black market at nearly 10 times the official rate.
Five people accused of looting Daka's store in the central city of Valencia have also been arrested, the Attorney General's office said in a statement.
Some Twitter users circulated more images on Sunday of crowds and jostling outside some shops around Venezuela. But there appeared to be no more outright looting as was seen in Valencia, where dozens of people were caught on camera running out of the Daka outlet with flat-screen TVs and boxes.
Vice-President Jorge Arreaza promised no let-up in the government's drive to lower prices.
"The Bolivarian government's actions against speculators have been and will be firm," he said, using a name that his late father-in-law Chavez added to the government's formal title in honor of independence hero Simon Bolivar.
"We are going to protect the people from bourgeois parasites ... We ask for trust and calm."
Seven months after Maduro narrowly beat opposition leader Henrique Capriles at a presidential election to replace his mentor Chavez, Venezuela is once again consumed by bitter politicking ahead of local municipal elections next month.
At the heart of the campaign is who takes blame for the country's economic problems: price rises that are hitting the poor majority hard despite the government's oil-fueled subsidies and welfare programs, shortages of basic products from toilet paper to milk, and a convoluted currency market.
Former bus-driver Maduro, 50, is reviving Chavez's old bete noire, private businessmen, in an aggressive message that he calculates will appeal to his working-class support base.
But critics say the government has only itself to blame for the problems due to excessive state controls, persecution of the private sector, corruption, failed nationalizations and lack of foreign currency for importers.
Capriles, the 40-year-old governor of Miranda state, and other opposition leaders are urging Venezuelans to punish Maduro's mayoral candidates at the December 8 nationwide vote.
They hope that may be a prelude to his exit from power, though unless Maduro were to resign, the only constitutional tactic the opposition has is a recall referendum in 2016.
"It's clearer and clearer every day that Maduro is a failed puppet of the Cuban government," Capriles fumed on Sunday. "Every time he opens his mouth, he scares away the investments that create employment and he worsens the crisis."
While plenty of economists believe Venezuela is in a mess, with foreign exchange reforms urgently overdue, they also point out that the South American nation has the world's largest oil reserves with ample capacity to repay its debt.
An increasing number of Venezuelans of all political persuasions are fed up with the continued polarization of their nation after 14 years of aggressive confrontations under Chavez, who died of cancer in March.
"I'm past caring if we have a socialist, capitalist or Martian in power. He can be a bus-driver or a bourgeois. I just want competence and calm," said Andreina Gonzalez, a 41-year-old housewife, leaving a Roman Catholic church in Caracas where prayers were said for the state of the nation on Sunday morning.
"This is one of the most beautiful and resource-rich countries on earth. Why are we all messing it up?"
Illustrating that disenchantment, ratings for both Maduro and Capriles have fallen since the April poll, when just 1.5 percentage points or about 210,000 votes separated them.
(Editing by Vicki Allen)