Mmm arepas

Arepera dining room

(click for full size) The arepera socialista, in a former chicken joint in Parque Central. The glass blocks and heat give it a deco, 30s feel. The bathrooms, left, show male and female icons, each with a 5-pointed star where the heart would be.

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.

Friend waiting outside arepera

Friend fans self in heat outside arepera. Customers are allowed in a dozen at a time.

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.

horario

Why I haven't been before -- they are now open only Monday to Friday, 7 to 7. When I was working like a good socialist, I never had time to go.

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.

Empty bins of food

No hay

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.

People ordering arepas

Ham salad, hot dog salad, customers.

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.

arepas

Mmmm arepas

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.

drinks

Sweet statist sucralosity

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.

cashier

Cashier, with laptop that puts customers' names on their receipts based on their state ID numbers.

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.

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18 thoughts on “Mmm arepas

  1. Juantxon

    Nice piece.

    Did she gave you a receipt, a real one, a legal one…? I only see a laptop and a box with bills, no cash register neither maquina fiscal.

  2. HalfEmpty

    Good work. Could have done without the very high-resolution shot of the stewed hot-dawgs tho.

    That warmer has that nice grayish 1969 Eastern Europe look.

    Sandiwiches look good tho.

    Also the babe… bad timing, bad place. But she is stressed.

  3. Pelao Manrique

    Why do customers have to give their ID numbers to pay, or get a receipt or whatever?
    That seems extremely intrusive.

    1. sapitosetty Post author

      People have to give ID numbers to buy anything in Venezuela. In theory it is to help with collection of sales taxes, but you don’t have to be a privacy fanatic to realize that the data, if ever collected centrally, could be misused. There is amazingly little privacy advocacy in Venezuela, even though intercepted private phone calls are often played on state television to illustrate whatever point the host wants to make.

    2. Guy Forget

      It’s very common in Bolivia, too, to have your ID number on the receipt. I think it’s very intrusive, too, but that’s the way things are!

    3. Kepler

      That rule did not exist in 2000. I don’t remember how it was in 2003, when I went back. In 2006 I went again and I was annoyed by it, I made a comment on it and the vendor told me “that has always existed”. But then she was like 20 years old, so for her it was always.

  4. No name required

    Perhaps you should have explained to the non-latino audience that pepitonas are a kind of clam.

    And is it my imagination, or is it becoming more and more obvious that the only way to find a Venezuelan with a genuine smile on his face is to go to Cucuta or Miami?

    1. Kepler

      NNR,

      That is not right. You can find more and more smiling Venezuelans in Paris, Madrid, Berlin, spread all around Germany, Brussels, Ghent, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Oslo, Bergen, Trondheim (and to the South around the oil industry), Prague, Santiago de Chile…Geez, even Tokyo and Sidney!

  5. Arturo

    I went to Locatel yesterday and was asked for my cedula, name and place where I live. I then went to Beco in Chacaito and the same thing happened. ¿Y? Standard practice these days and has been for some years.

    Now if you are selling the cheapest arepas in the country, what do you expect? Five * service? It is cheap and cheerful in Parque Central. Your report is full of the normal mezquindad which prevails all opposition journalism.

    And the empty trays – ¿no hay? My interpretation is that the trays are empty becuse of huge demand not becuase there is no food as you misguidedly imply.

    1. sapitosetty Post author

      Arturo: You were asked for your name. At the Arepera, they have a database that pops it up – the national cedula database. It’s the only retailer I’ve ever been to where that happens. Y nada. If you trust the government with a record of every purchase you make, and trust they’ll never use that database for partisan or intelligence purposes, great.

      I don’t expect five-star service anywhere in the world. And the service at the arepera was fine, better than some others. Just that the workers were completely exhausted. “Socialist” historically doesn’t mean “pro-Chavez,” it means “pro-worker.”

      What exactly is the difference between “excessive demand” and “inadequate supply”? There is no difference. They are two ways of saying the same thing: No hay. There was practically no food! At 2 pm on a Friday at an arepera. I realize that expectations are sometimes low in Venezuela, but this is not normal. It shows that Saman’s thesis — that you could sell an arepa for 5, or 7, or whatever, and still cover costs, pay workers a decent salary, pay rent, pay taxes, and exist without a subsidy — is breaking down. A store that is covering costs doesn’t run out of things like white cheese, which can easily survive the weekend.

      This is not mezquindad (bad faith, meanness). This is “crítica y más crítica” (criticism and more criticism). I went in with high hopes. I agree with part of what Saman said — that profit margins in Venezuela are often excessive and that low-cost competition can drive down prices. But as it turns out, it was he who was arguing in bad faith. The right price for an arepa may not be 22 bolivars, but it’s apparently not 7, either. Because he went into the argument with his mind made up, he set the price artificially low, and the workers and customers are now paying the price in exhaustion and dissatisfaction. There is no way to know if taxpayers are also paying the price in rent, electricity, or food subsidies.

    2. Kepler

      Cómo que “y”?
      In Venezuela a lot of things have been happening for some years and that does not mean they are right. As Setty says, they can and are used for intelligence purpose. 99.99999% of it is not, but a part certainly is.

      Have you been outside Venezuela to any other place than Cuba?

      Setty:
      in case you don’t know, Arturo is a well-known troll at Miguel’s blog.

  6. pem

    When I was in Vzla from 2008-2009, I’d be asked fot my cedula (and as an American who doesn’t have a cedula) I simply said I didn’t have one. Then they asked for my passport number and I’d just invent one. Until they start asking to show your ID, I’m not sure it matters.

    Anyway, I agree with the general concern and if I were you, I’d just invent passport numbers (heck even nationalities) like I do.

    1. sapitosetty Post author

      that’s what i do. i also make up a name, usually something like “danger lopez.” but with the new system they have at the arepera, none of that works.

  7. FC

    In Mexico you only give ID if you want a Factura (And the ID is usually your RFC number, so you can use it for personal tax deduction purposes). Otherwise you ask for a Nota, a basic receipt.

  8. Ricardo

    When I was living in Venezuela, I memorized Hugo Chavez’s cédula number (4.258.228) and gave it away every time I purchased stuff.

    I wonder if the Seniat ever knocked at his door about it

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