I finally took a friend up on her long-standing offer to take me out for a socialist arepa. (Pictures and hot dogs below the jump.)The concept of the socialist arepera was, to me, one of the more lovely ideas promulgated by this government. Trade Minister Eduardo Samán said, last fall at a cabinet meeting, that he could show the superiority of socialism by building a state-run arepera. It would show how the private ones cheat workers and customers by charging several times the true cost of an arepa — a cheese or meat sandwich with the bread being a split patty made of roasted white corn meal.
In a flash, the government took over an old Arturo’s chicken restaurant at Parque Central, a vast and crumbling state-owned collection of modernist double-loaded residential slabs, high-rise office buildings, underground labyrinths filled with beauty salons, health food stores and cell phone hackers. The government paid to clean the place up and put some minimum-wage workers into red shirts. In what seemed like the shortest execution time of any government project I’ve seen, Chávez was suddenly touring the place.
The day of the tour, Dec. 22, may have been an omen. It was the first and only time I’ve seen the president openly heckled on state television. He walked toward the restaurant on live TV, and someone on a catwalk overhead shouted something at him. He looked quite surprised but kept going. Just as his choreographed inauguration ended up showing him as unpopular even in the lower-middle-class-to-down-and-out Parque Central neighborhood, so has the arepera socialista shown some of the challenges for his and Samán’s dream of a network of socialist businesses.
Inside, everything was clean and bright. Saman was running to and fro, making sure everything was shipshape. There was carne mechada, reina pepiada, three kinds of cheese, you name it, and arepas for just 5 bolivars apiece, or about $1 at the parallel rate at the time. You could order as many as you wanted, and you would tell the cashier what you had <i>after</i> you ate, Saman said. This is how it is in rich people’s restaurants, but poor people are always being told to pay first. Treating them with respect would help create a better society, he said. He said he would volunteer a shift every week, and he said other socialists would want to come and volunteer to show the possibilities of socialism and to have a chance to meet the public. Chávez asked a worker for an arepa. She looked a bit lost. She said she normally worked in the offices of the trade ministry. But she made him his corn-meal-bun sandwich and he said it was delicious.
Anyway, that was months ago. The place is still there, and the franchise is expanding — I recently saw one under construction atop the Avila, the big mountain in Caracas, in the food and entertainment area once known as Avila Magica, and since its nationalization known as Waraira Repano.
We waited about 5 minutes in line outside the arepera. My friend, who as an unemployed resident of a nearby neighborhood, has gone regularly for months, said the lines used to be a half hour, but lately, some people have stopped coming. Prices have gone up 40% in Venezuelan terms — 7 bolivars, still $1 at the parallel rate, but a much bigger increase than the 10% rise in the minimum wage in that period. And workers have started counting your arepas before you eat. Her homeless and street-vendor pals no longer come, she said. The failure of the honor system is a tragedy. A decline in clientele is a mystery — the prices are still less than half those in private-sector areperas nearby.
We got inside and things seemed a bit off. The main problem was the variety of food on offer. It may have just been that it was only 5 hours til they closed for the weekend, but wow.
You could get a plate of stew and rice and a soup, which is a very hearty lunch. There were only two kinds of cheese, while the usual arepera has four or even six. There was a salad made of deviled ham and another based on hot dogs. There were also some sort of stewed hot dog chunks.
There was none of the hen salad or pulled beef that were there when Chavez visited, and which are arepa standards. Certainly no avocado — now selling in the markets for 45 bolivars (about $10) a kilo. The workers, almost all female, seemed exhausted. It was warm.
We had a nice lunch. The arepas and cheese and pepitonas were all delicious. We couldn’t bring ourselves to try the hot dog salad with mayonnaise or the stewed hot dogs, so no comprehensive food review.
We were thirsty from the heat. The drinks available were “apple” juice, extremely sweetened with sucralose, made in state-run Lacteos Los Andes. Who knows what the arepera paid for the juice; we paid almost as much per bottle as the price of the arepa. I couldn’t drink the stuff.
We lined up another five minutes to pay. We paid another exhausted-looking employee, after giving my friend’s state ID number. She said she knows people who are nervous about what they are going to do with those ID numbers. I couldn’t stop looking at the cashier. She saw me with my camera, and it was like she couldn’t be bothered to tell me not to take a picture, couldn’t be bothered to smile, couldn’t be bothered to do much of anything. Reminded me of the depressing feeling I got at most establishments in Cuba.
Chavéz and Samán hoped to use the Arepera Socialista to teach the public the benefits of socialism. I think the lesson it’s teaching is more complex.