Chavez backers march through Venezuela’s capital

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CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — Thousands of supporters of President Hugo Chavez filled a downtown Caracas avenue on Saturday to demonstrate their backing for the socialist leader’s crackdown on allegedly crooked real-estate and construction companies.

Waving Venezuelan flags and wearing T-shirts bearing pro-government slogans, roughly 5,000 Chavez supporters marched through downtown Caracas. Some chanted “Viva Chavez!” while others held up banners heralding the president’s order for officials to seize control of more than a dozen residential complexes.

The march was organized so that “fraudulent businessmen know they cannot fool the people as they’ve done in the past because now we have a government that defends us and fights to construct a better country for all of us,” said Carlos Sierra, a member of the ruling party.

Chavez ordered the expropriation of six residential complexes and “the temporary occupation” of eight gated communities in Caracas and other cities more than a week ago, arguing that real estate and construction companies were unjustly boosting prices.

Venezuela’s consumer protection agency and state prosecutors are investigating complaints that some businesses have illegally charged buyers inflated interest rates on unfinished apartments, even though some buyers settled on a price years ago and made down payments.

Commerce Minister Richard Canan said the consumer protection agency has received more than 4,500 complaints about purported violations of rules prohibiting businesses from charging interests on apartments after buyers have reached agreements with real estate firms on a selling price.

“The middle class is making demands,” Canan told the state-run Venezuelan News Agency. “We are going to continue guaranteeing the rights of owners.”

Companies accused of violating consumer-protection regulations deny any wrongdoing.

Critics of the expropriations and temporary state takeovers, including Chavez’s political opponents and Venezuela’s largest business chamber, warn the government’s measures will scare off investors and aggravate the country’s acute housing deficit.

More than 1 million of Venezuela’s estimated 28 million inhabitants do not have adequate housing while millions more live in dangerous, labyrinth-like slums ringing the South American nation’s cities.

The companies that have been recently expropriated include the Venezuelan subsidiary of U.S.-based glass-container manufacturer Owens-Illinois Inc., the local farming supply company Agroislena CA and a chain of retail stores and supermarkets owned by France’s Casino Guichard Perrachon SA.