CARACAS, Venezuela – From big cities to small villages, from street corners to shopping centers and from kitchen tables in modest homes to those in luxurious mansions, it’s clear.
Arepas unite Venezuelans.
The traditional dish is made from pre-cooked maize flour, baked and then filled with a diverse range of foods from grated cheese and ham to black beans, avocado, fish and chicken salad.
Earlier this year, Eduardo Samán, the then-minister for people’s power for industry, announced the expansion of corporation of socialist businesses (COMERSO) with the creation of 22 pharmacies, six arepa shops or areperas and various socialist tire shops in the PDV service stations, owned by Petróleos de Venezuela.
The reason? Selling products “at a just price and within reach of the people in order to resist capitalist speculation,” according to the government’s statement.
The kickoff of the new socialist policies began on Dec. 22 with the inauguration of a socialist arepera in the commercial area of Parque Central, an iconic site in downtown Caracas.
The idea raised eyebrows, especially during a time when supermarkets and wholesalers are going through a shortage of the pre-cooked maize flour – an essential ingredient along with water and salt – to make the famous bread.
But it was the sandwich’s low cost that was most surprising. You could buy an arepa filled with bourgeoisie-sounding paté of sardines for only $3.50 bolívares (US$0.81), while those filled with shredded beef would sell for $5 bolívares (US$1.16).
Yet not even the most proletarian arepa could survive inflation — a capitalist evil that President Hugo Chávez’s Bolivarian revolution has tried to exorcize.
In the first months of the year, the price of the socialist arepa reached $7.50 bolívares (US$1.74), which represents an increase of 50% since its unveiling. In regular areperas, they are sold for $25 to $45 bolívares (US$5.81 to US$10.46).
On a recent visit to the socialist arepera in Parque Central – the only one in operation – the enormous line formed for breakfast had diminished a little by 10 a.m.
The place is neat and has a contemporary design, but it doesn’t offer air-conditioning. Only a few ventilators tried to alleviate the overwhelming heat of Caracas and respect the energy-saving guidelines of Chávez’s administration due to the national power crisis.
At the counter, I asked for a white cheese arepa and a small carton of Los Andes juice. Los Andes is a beverage and milk company that recently has been nationalized.
The socialist arepa is a little smaller than those sold at private businesses, causing customers to order two or three and ask for more filling.
The menu in the socialist areperas goes beyond the traditional dish. It also sells lunch meals, such as pabellón criollo, which is the national dish with rice, shredded beef and fried plantain, with the other being rice with chicken (arroz con pollo).
These meals generally cost $17 bolívares (US$3.95), whereas they range from $30 (US$6.97) to $60 bolívares ($13.95) in conventional restaurants.
Two new socialist areperas branches already have been announced by the government – one in the Waraira Repano cable car station in Caracas, and another in Maracaibo in western Venezuela.