Attempts at agrarian reform in the 1960s sputtered when the government redistributed land but failed to provide the new farmers with the expertise and capital needed to succeed, leading them to produce less. By the time Chavez was elected in 1999, a census had found that 90 percent of farmland given to the poor had returned to large landholders.
Chavez had promised not to make the same mistakes, but Venezuela's poor have continued to migrate to the cities; deprived of expertise, many expropriated farms produce less and less. Private food makers, large and small, often sell at a loss because of hundreds of price controls that Chavez imposed in a losing fight against runaway inflation. The government controls the foreign currency they need to buy foreign-made pesticides, fertilizers, animal food and machinery.
Maduro has insisted he will continue Chavez's legacy of state-sponsored supply for the poor. And last Thursday, he injected a new element into the campaign, accusing Venezuela's biggest private food producer, Alimentos Polar, of sabotaging the domestic food market, though he did not elaborate on how.
"Keep up your sabotage of the people's food," Maduro bellowed at a rally in the northern state of Carabobo. "That's OK. Everything in life has its end."
Polar employs about 48,000 people directly and indirectly in its foods division and accounts for roughly 10 percent of domestic food production, including grains, sauces, cheese, canned foods, jam, animal food and other products.
It issued an unusually strong statement Friday that called Maduro's remarks "threatening" and insisted it is producing at maximum capacity despite a web of government restrictions.
Polar said the government owes it $140 million in U.S. dollars for imports. It said the government decides where its products are shipped, "without taking into account consumer demand." It said the government has disrupted cornmeal inventories throughout Venezuela by demanding that Polar send most of it to Caracas.
Polar added that every food delivery it makes must be approved beforehand by the government. And it noted that official prices for many of its products have not changed in two years despite a recent devaluation of the bolivar currency and estimated inflation of 23 percent. The company said it is losing money on sales of some products, including precooked corn meal, rice, corn oil and pasta.
In a skewed and often irrational market, the vendors at Guaicapuro do what they can.
Dexnmit Gonzalez's family sells chicken and eggs at 50 percent more than official prices. The government-set prices are posted on a board he's flipped around so customers can't see them, but which can be quickly displayed should a price inspector come around.
"Between us," Gonzalez said, "we cannot sell at official prices."
On Saturday, many shoppers walked away from a display case half-stocked with scrawny chicken breasts. Gonzalez brought out a healthy chicken breast and held it in his palms. "This is very scarce," he said. "Nothing's guaranteed."
Across the way, Rocky Galviz, 42, sells pig feet, cuts of meat and turkey beneath a sign urging shoppers to denounce price gouging to the "Institute for the Defense of People Seeking Goods and Services." Galviz confides he must sell his Brazilian meat at 50 percent above official prices to make ends meet.
The government can sell its own imports of Brazilian meat at state prices, Galviz complained.
"That is unfair competition," he said.
Associated Press Writers Alexandra Olson in Caracas and Frank Bajak in Valencia, Venezuela, contributed to this story.