( AP ) - The lines formed at dawn and remained long throughout the day - hundreds upon hundreds of Venezuelans waiting to buy scarce milk, chicken and sugar at state-run outdoor markets staffed by soldiers in fatigues.
President Hugo Chavez's government is trying to cope with shortages of some foods, and the lines at state-run "Megamercal" street markets show many Venezuelans are willing to wait for hours to snap up a handful of products they seldom find in supermarkets.
"You have to get in line and you have to be lucky," said Maria Fernandez, a 64-year-old housewife who was trying to buy milk and chicken on Sunday.
The lines for basic foods at subsidized prices are paradoxical for an oil-rich nation that in many ways is a land of plenty. Shopping malls are bustling, new car sales are booming and privately owned supermarkets are stocked with American potato chips, French wines and Swiss Gruyere cheese.
Yet other foods covered by price controls - eggs, chicken - periodically are hard to find in supermarkets. Fresh milk has become a luxury, and even baby formula is scarcer nowadays.
The shortages are prompting some Venezuelans to question Chavez's economic policies while he campaigns for constitutional changes that, if approved in a Dec. 2 referendum, would let him run for re-election indefinitely.
Some government officials accuse producers of keeping basic goods off the market to profiteer or to sow discontent among Venezuela's poor, Chavez's core supporters.
Economists say the factors behind the shortages are numerous, including surging demand due to economic growth.
The government's price controls are also "totally divorced" from reality - in some cases below production costs - making it unprofitable for suppliers to sell their products at official prices, said economist Pedro Palma of the Caracas consulting firm MetroEconomica.
More investment is needed in agriculture, but the government's agrarian reform effort - assuming control of vast farmlands and offering them to poor farmers - has made traditional producers reluctant to invest, he said.
Importers also face hurdles. Currency exchange controls imposed in 2003 require state approval to obtain dollars at the official rate. Those without it turn to the black market, buying dollars for about three times the fixed rate.
To compound the problem, Palma said, some of the products Venezuela looks to import, such as milk and sugar, are scarce internationally.
Many Venezuelans in line at the Megamercal said they were grateful to Chavez for subsidized markets offering prices far cheaper than commercial supermarkets. But they also complained of struggling to find milk, chicken, sugar and cooking oil elsewhere at prices set by the government.
"I arrived at 6 in the morning to get in line," said Doris Bastida, 32, a mother of four who wheeled an infant son in a stroller. She had been waiting for about four hours when she reached the entrance.