Ice-cream shop closure stirs Venezuela's economic blame game

CARACAS - Venezuela's Tourism Ministry denied on Monday that a famous ice-cream store had closed due to lack of milk, the latest quirky twist in the bitter national debate over who is to blame for the nation's economic problems.

"It's false," the ministry tweeted after the Coromoto shop, which holds a Guinness world record for its 863 different flavors, announced it was closed over the Christmas holiday because of a milk shortage.

An article on the ministry's website said Coromoto's Portuguese owner was on holiday in his homeland while other ice-cream parlours in Venezuela's western city of Merida, where the shop is located, were finding enough milk to function normally.

"Manuel da Silva is an opposition supporter, with every right to be so, except that he's telling a lie and his action was planned, through the media, as part of the low-intensity war against the present government," the article said.

Although it is a small controversy, the ice-cream affair underlines how the country's polarised politics have seeped into many areas of Venezuelan life.

Opponents seized on the Coromoto announcement as a telling symbol of what they view as President Nicolas Maduro's economic failure. He says foes, egged on by the United States and foreign media, exaggerate and make up problems.

Da Silva could not be reached for comment.

Venezuelans have been suffering from shortages all year amid an economic slowdown, the highest inflation in the Americas and restrictions on foreign currency for businesses.

Opposition leaders say 15 years of socialist policies, which began under Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chavez, are to blame, while the government says its foes are undermining the economy with sabotage and speculation.

The recent plunge in the price of oil, which accounts for 96 per cent of the country's foreign currency revenues, has exacerbated Venezuela's economic problems.