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New Venezuelan Agency to Coordinate Distribution of Food, Medicine

FILE - A man shows a cardboard box crafted to depict an empty refrigerator to indicate the shortage of products, during an opposition march in Caracas, Venezuela, May 14, 2016.

Venezuela's armed forces will coordinate distribution of food and medicine as part of President Nicolas Maduro's efforts to control severe shortages of staples in the crisis-hit OPEC country, according to a decree published Tuesday.

The decree creates a new body called the Supply Command that will issue new regulations governing the purchase, sale and distribution of food, medicine, personal hygiene items and home cleaning products. The body, headed by Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, will oversee government agencies that had regulated such activities. It can force private businesses to sell their production to state entities.

Critics dismissed the plan as insufficient to resolve the country's economic problems, including Soviet-style shortages, triple-digit inflation and heavy dependence on imports.

"[It] implies the use of the armed forces' operational capacity throughout the country ... in ensuring national supply of strategic products to guarantee the right of all Venezuelans to nutrition and health," the decree said.

Maduro issued the decree through economic emergency powers that allow him to pass legislation without the approval of Congress, which is controlled by the opposition following last year's sweeping victory in legislative elections.

Padrino on Tuesday appeared on state television as part of a presidential economic commission, saying the change was "a matter of discipline, not one of militarization."

"I don't like militarization, military intervention in nonmilitary matters," he added.

A combination of low oil prices and a decaying socialist system of currency and price controls has left Venezuela with the world's highest inflation and a severe recession.

The president, a former bus driver, insists his government is the victim of an "economic war" led by political adversaries with the help of the United States.

Maduro's opponents, who are seeking to use broad popular outrage about the crisis to seek a recall referendum on his rule, say that the only way to avert the crisis is to scrap the system of socialist controls.

"The official announcements to address the economic crisis and supply only deepen the causes of the problem," economist and pollster Luis Vicente Leon said via Twitter. "If we assume that the cause of the crisis is the economic war and not the primitive model of intervention and control, everything else will be useless."