CARACAS (Reuters) - In its own version of Cuba’s famous Coppelia ice-cream store, Venezuela is now running a popular “Socialist arepa” shop to nourish stomachs and souls with a subsidized version of the beloved national food.
Just as long queues snake around Coppelia in Havana, so hundreds of Venezuelans wait patiently every day to buy an arepa -- a form of cornmeal flatbread usually filled with cheese or meat -- in Caracas for a third of the normal cost.
The “Socialist Arepa Shop,” one of a chain springing up around the nation, is a classic, headline-grabbing initiative by President Hugo Chavez, a populist who says his self-styled revolution counterbalances U.S. capitalism.
Red-shirted waiters with slogans like “Chavez is a winner” attend the diners, and even the toilets have a socialist star on the figures that indicate men’s and women’s sides.
While digesting or waiting, customers can read quotes from left-wing Latin American thinkers on the wall.
“They are feeding my stomach and my politics at the same time -- and all for 7.5 bolivars,” said Consuelo Bustamente, a 64-year-old pensioner who said she was a socialist long before former soldier Chavez came to power 11 years ago.
The arepa initiative delights his supporters, known as “Chavistas,” but brings mockery from foes who say the Cuba ally is wrecking the country with an ill-conceived bid to tackle poverty with out-dated communist-style policies.
“I wouldn’t be seen dead in there, with all those scurrilous Chavistas,” said a well-heeled housewife, buying an arepa for 25 bolivars in a middle-class neighborhood.
“Chavez and his cronies can give away arepas, but meanwhile they’re destroying the economy, it’s a joke.”
INFLATION REACHES ‘AREPAS’
It is precisely, however, measures like the subsidized arepas that keep Chavez connected with Venezuela’s poor majority and may keep him winning at the ballot-box.
Though a recession, horrific crime levels, and recent electricity and water failures, have weighed on his popularity, Chavez still maintains a near-50 percent rating.
That, in part, is thanks to government subsidies, plus the provision of free schools and medical services in the poor shanty-towns of Caracas and elsewhere.
Chavez’s populist manner -- waving a baseball at rallies, swearing at opponents -- makes his opponents cringe, but often goes down well among his supporters, who believe Venezuela’s elite excluded them for decades prior to his government.
Nevertheless, Chavez knows he has a fight on his hands in a September parliamentary election where the opposition is sensing a chance to at least slash his majority. Both sides are then eyeing the 2012 presidential election.
But in the “Socialist Arepa Store,” not everyone is happy.
William Quintero Palma shakes his head as he tucks into a ham-and-cheese arepa, saying the recent 50 percent rise in the original 5 bolivar price -- a nod to Venezuela’s inflation rate, one of the world’s highest at 25 percent last year -- was wrong.
“Soon they’ll be calling it the capitalist arepa-shop,” he said. “This place was supposed to be different. And look, they’ve run out of chicken and minced meat already today.”
The 27-year-old Venezuelan said he did not consider himself a socialist because so many of the government’s plethora of social missions had produced low-quality services. And he did not like Chavez’s bellicose rhetoric either.
But will he still support him?
“I think some people who have voted for him in the past are going to abstain,” he said. “But not me, I‘m with the big man. There’s nobody else who has the interests of the poor as his priority, whatever his mistakes may be.”
Editing by Patrick Markey and Sandra Maler