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Jorge Roig, who represents Venezuela’s largest business chamber, called on the government Monday to free up more dollars, which could be used to buy more imported goods.

Mr. Roig said business leaders in October had warned the state agency responsible for trading U.S. dollars to businesses at the official exchange rate that shortages of food and other products would occur during the first quarter this year if the government didn’t release more hard currency.

“The market is undersupplied, and it’s showing on the shelves,” he said.

‘Controls don’t work’

A monthly scarcity index compiled by Venezuela’s Central Bank, relying on spot checks in markets across the nation, reached its highest level in four years last month. The index remains below a high hit in 2007, when the problem of widespread food shortages was considered a key factor in Mr. Chavez’s defeat in a referendum on constitutional changes.

Pollster Luis Vicente Leon said the shortages could reach the levels of 2007.

Asdrubal Oliveros of Econoanalitica, a Caracas-based economic think tank, blames government economic policy.

“The controls don’t work,” Mr. Oliveros said. “In every part of the world, they have demonstrated their failure.”

Private companies that import food and other products receive dollars from the government every month or two months, but delays have occurred recently. Mr. Roig said the government often is delivering only a small percentage of what companies request.

During visits to several shops and supermarkets in downtown Caracas, an Associated Press reporter noticed a lack of chicken, milk, cooking oil, beef, sugar and coffee. Also scarce was cornmeal, the main ingredient for the country’s cherished “arepas,” corn cakes that are stuffed with meat, chicken, cheese or other fillings.

More consumers are being forced to hop from market to market to check off their grocery lists.

Beatriz Romero, a 44-year-old housewife, looked exasperated as she emerged from a small grocery store in bustling downtown Caracas holding plastic bags full of canned goods and vegetables.

“I didn’t find everything that I needed,” said Mrs. Romero, who wanted to buy rice, cornmeal and sugar. “I’ll have to go look for the other products somewhere else.”