WikiLeaks XX: Chavez — First Citgo, Now Burger King?

We’re honored to have Michael Busch dissecting the latest WikiLeaks document dump for Focal Points. This is the twentieth in the series.

Of all the wacky things being revealed in this week’s WikiLeaks document drop, a couple of the weirdest have come from the US embassy in Caracas. The first was a cable (which now seems to have disappeared from the Wiki archives) describing Hugo Chavez’s adventures in the kitchen, fighting American imperialism with food.

According to the January 19, 2010 cable, with a headline that promises top secret information on “Socialism’s Tangible—and Tasty—Benefits”

President Chavez opened the “Arepera Socialista” with much fanfare on December 22, advertising its low price and high quality as symbolic of the benefits of his socialist revolution. (Note: “Arepas” are a Venezualan-style thick cornmeal tortilla usually used for a type of sandwich. End Note.) The restaurant, located in a lower middle class neighborhood of Caracas, serves “arepas” for about a fourth of their regular price. It is currently only open during weekday mornings, although there are plans to extend its hours, add coffee and fresh juice to its menu, and open two new locations in working class neighborhoods.

On a January 8 visit, EmbOffs witnessed a long line of people waiting to get into the restaurant but surprisingly rapid service. Inside, one wall was dominated by a quote in large red lettering from Simon Bolivar: “The best system of government is that which produces the greatest happiness.” An employee managing the line said the restaurant served 1,200 customers per day. One man in line said he worked in the neighborhood and came every day since the food was excellent and cheap.

Apparently, in the new state sponsored “Arepera Socialista,” “Money is Secondary in Socialist Restaurants.”

According to Minister of Commerce Eduardo Saman, people can count on low prices at the “arepera socialista” because the ingredients come from government-owned companies and other products, such as boxed juices, come from government-owned companies. Saman claimed the prices were sufficient to cover the store’s operating costs. He also announced on December 23 that a chain of “Arepera Socialista” restaurants would be opened throughout Venezuela as part of the Socialist Market Cooperatives run by the Ministry of Commerce. Saman himself worked at the restaurant on December 24; other Ministry of Commerce employees were “volunteering” at the restaurant on the day of the Emboffs’ visit. About 30 people work at the restaurant.

Besides the price, Saman highlighted another key difference between socialist and capitalist “arepera”: customers pay only after eating, while “in fast food chains . . . they only think about money.” In the “Arepera Socialista,” the cash register is in a corner of the room and customers pay only after eating, self-reporting how many of the “arepas” they ate.

Imagine that: the state providing low-cost, healthy foods to the poor! But that’s nothing compared with another development related in an earlier cable.

The cable dates from 2008, when on

The evening of September 30, American Airlines Country Manager Omar Nottaro (strictly protect throughout) called Econoff to report that the captain and crew of American Airlines flight 903 were being held at the airport. He explained that upon landing a crew member said “Welcome to Venezuela. Local Chavez time is” X.

As travelers to Venezuela in recent years know, Chavez ordered the creation of the country’s own time zone to allow the public more daylight in which to be productive. At the time of the decision, Chavez confidently defied his critics by noting that “I don’t care if they call me crazy, the new time will go ahead.”

Funny that he should have that. As it turns out, one of the flight’s passengers, a

friend of Venezuelan National Assemblyman Carlos Echezuria Rodriguez, thought the crew member had said “loco Chavez time.”

He wasn’t the only one. The cable discusses a Venezuelan Immigration report on the incident obtained by Interpol, which shows that officially the captain’s remarks had been logged as “the hour of the crazy Chavez and his women.” You can’t make this stuff up, folks.

Whatever was said, the reports of the incident almost immediately made their way to the highest levels of the Venezuelan state, and provoked a momentary crisis.

The passenger, Nestor Maldonado Lanza, told Deputy Rodriguez who was waiting for him outside, that the pilot had called President Chavez crazy. The Deputy called Venezuelan Vice President Carrizales to report the incident. The Vice President called civil aviation authority (INAC) President Martinez who went to the airport. The Directorate for Venezuelan Domestic Intelligence and Prevention, DISIP, opened an investigation. However, because ONIDEX had not allowed the crew to go through customs, DISIP backed out of investigation and turned it over to ONIDEX which had jurisdiction as the crew had not officially entered Venezuela. The crew then waited inside the airport for the results of a meeting between airport, ONIDEX, INAC and American Airlines staff.

The situation was defused when AA’s Nottaro promised

to put the crew back on the empty airplane as soon as it was refueled and get the captain and crew out of the country immediately. Nottaro also apologized in person to INAC President Martinez and committed to writing several letters of apology on October 1. Venezuelan authorities accepted Nottaro’s offer and the crew left Venezuela at 11:30 pm. American made the decision to turn the plane around even though it meant canceling AA flight 902 out of Caracas the morning of October 1, at considerable cost to the airline.

The cable notes that this was the second incident involving Venezuelan authorities and American flight crews that month, but does not discuss the matter further, other than to relate that it involved Delta Airlines. As the cable concludes, the AA incident demonstrates just how soured relations between Washington and Caracas had become by the end of George W. Bush’s presidency “when a chance remark escalates within minutes to the level of the Venezuelan Vice Presidency.”