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Venezuela's Political Crisis Is Affecting Arepas And Driving People To Protest


Meanwhile in Venezuela itself, tens of thousands of people have been taking to the streets to demand an end to Maduro's presidency. One of the things driving Venezuelans to protest is what the economic crisis is doing to their beloved arepas. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Opposition rallies here in Caracas have been massive.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: (Shouting in Spanish).


PERALTA: Tens of thousands line main boulevards. And you hear a raft of complaints. There's no water. There are power cuts. A six-pack of toilet paper will cost you a month's salary. 22-year-old Christos Aguilaro (ph) says he's done with this phony socialism. But there is one thing in particular that cuts deep.

CHRISTOS AGUILARO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: He's gone a week without eating cheese. He's had to stuff his arepas with lentils - something, he says, he thought he'd never eat. The next day, this spot is back to normal - except there is a line that stretches one city block. Everyone just saw a truck full of flour arrive. Havier (ph), who asked we only use his first name because he fears government retaliation, is at the front of that line. The flour lets him make arepas.

HAVIER: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: The arepa is a sacred breakfast. It's like a thick tortilla usually made out of simple corn flour and stuffed with cheese or chicken. But the government sets a price for corn flour, so producers sneak it out of the country to sell it for more. Others have added rice to the mixture to make it a, quote, "liberated product" not subject to government control. That's what Havier was waiting for - a corn and rice flour mixture.

HAVIER: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Things have had to change, he says. Sometimes he eats bread instead of arepas. Some people make the arepa out of grated plantains or cassava flour. Victor Moreno (ph), a professor at the Culinary Institute in Caracas, says it's impossible to overstate how important the arepa is in Venezuelan culture. The myth is that corn was a gift from the sun - a round piece of sunlight delivered by an eagle and planted by a wise woman.

VICTOR MORENO: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: It makes Americans people of corn. His colleague Juan Sebastian Perez (ph) says that then raises a question. Is an arepa made of rice flour or cassava or out of the nixtamalized Mexican flour given out by the government really an arepa?

JUAN SEBASTION PEREZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: Would a taco be a taco if the tortilla is made of flour and not corn? Across the city, I find another impromptu line. No one knows what they're waiting for, but they saw a truck, and they're all hoping it's flour. Mercedes (ph), who asks we only use her first name, is 57. She says she worked her entire life for the government, and now that she's retired, she can hardly buy a pack of detergent with her monthly check. As for her arepas, she makes them out of rice.

MERCEDES: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: She adds two spoons of flour to cooked rice, and then it tastes fine, she says. But these days in Venezuela, it's not about taste. It's about survival.

MERCEDES: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: It's humiliating not being able to eat arepas, and it'd be fine if everyone was suffering. But those government officials, she says, are fat like whales while people like her wither. Eventually someone from the supermarket says what they got was fish. So Mercedes goes back home disappointed with little hope of eating a real Venezuelan arepa. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Caracas. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.