"Socialist" snacks nourish Chavez fans in Venezuela

Wed Apr 21, 2010 6:36pm EDT
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By Andrew Cawthorne

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.   Continued...

<p>A woman prepares arepas, a form of cornmeal flatbread usually filled with cheese or meat, at state-run Arepa Socialista (Socialist Arepa) restaurant in Caracas April 16, 2010. REUTERS/Jorge Silva</p>