“Mommy, can we get some French fries?” asked my daughter as we drove past the massive granite monolith that is the McDonald’s store of La Castellana in Caracas.
“There are no French fries in Venezuela, baby” sentenced my wife.
My daughter’s eyes dampened like that was the saddest thing she ever heard. And perhaps it was.
“Wait, wait, wait, that is not exactly right,” I replied. Because that’s what daddies do, they sabotage mommies. “You cannot say there are no fries in Venezuela.”
I jumped off the car determined to prove her wrong. I rolled over the asphalt like Bruce Willis and entered the store with chivalrous flare. I got in line, and read the options that Ronald Mc-D was offering to go with its combos — let’s take the double quarter pounder (royale with cheese) for example: Bs. 675 with fried arepitas; Bs. 720 with yuca and salad; and Bs. 835 with fries.
I sent a whatsapp message to my lady boss. “I won.”
While standing in line, I remembered that early in the year —the first week, in fact— , Barbara and Anabella tackled the French fry problem. The disappearance of French fries from the McDonald’s menu had gone viral in part thanks to Dante Rivas’ —another of chavismo’s multipurpose ministers— response to the outrage over, well, the disappearance of McDonald’s French fries from the menu.
Although McDonald’s had said it was due to a labor strike in the West Coast ports, Rivas mocked the outrage stating that there would be no people’s Dollars —CADIVI Dollars, I assume— to import fries. Some hipster, common-sense news outlets pouned on the strike story and called out the people who were making such a big fuss about not being able to quench their pequeño burgués urges.
Seven months later, and I found myself standing before a choir of McDonald’s hyenas, laughing their guts out, just because I naturally asked for one order of large fries. Las sonrisas son gratis. I had not been in Caracas in six months.
There are no economic indicators to explain the scarcity of french fries, or of many of the other things I found in short supply. Actually, there are no official economic indicators at all, because the Central Bank sort of decided that publishing them would hurt the economy.
A good example of these artisanal economic indicators was the (late) Rottiserie Chicken Index (IPB) made popular by journalist and web activist Luis Carlos Díaz.
Last week Díaz tweeted that the chicken price indicator had disappeared from the roadside billboard. I wondered whether it had to do with pressures from the government —the IPB has become one of the benchmark references for inflation in the country—, or just that the ticker broke down. So I went to the arepera and spoke to one of the cashiers. As I enquired about the index, the man said that they got fed with having to change the price every two weeks or so. That the current price of the rottiserie chicken was Bs. 1550 (about $2.27 at the parallel market rate). Venezuela broke the IPB.
This information cost me a Toddy Frío. As I drew a Bs. 50 bill to pay for the chocolate beverage, the cashier laughed and said: sorry, primo, it’s 250.
Damn. Then he went on a rant about public policy and economics, about all the decisions that the government wasn’t taking, and that it would be a while before we could hold our heads over water. [You got my vote, good sir.] He also said business was slow, that nights were bringing less and less people because of the beer shortage(!). And that their classic neon sign was out of duty because it was expensive to fix and there weren’t any spare parts anyway. I don’t think this was one of the reasons their sales were down, but it seemed to make primo very unhappy. I did not leave a tip because Bolivar bank notes are scarce too.
An arepera out of beer. That’s sad. But not as sad, perhaps, as a famous café known for it’s pabellón empanadas … running out of black beans. The pabellón is the national dish, and as many latinocaribbean national dishes it’s a mixture of shredded beef, rice, plantains, and beans. The pabellón empanada is just a necessary and sinful spinoff of the traditional pabellón.
When I ordered that delicious menage a trois of protein, carbs, and scorching hot oil, the waiter said, sorry but we are out of black beans. No worries, just do it with the remaining ingredients. There’s no plantain.
No plantains in our banana republic … take a minute to digest that, given how we can’t digest actual plantains, or black beans, or fries.
As it happens, black beans are regulated at Bs. 65 a kilo are sold at 1,200 in the streets.
But hey, let us order a cazón (baby shark) empanada instead —a traditional margariteño dish—. Sorry, no fish.
Fish is scarce even in boutique stores, which sell whatever fish they can put their hands on at Gucci prices. You’d think that Venezuela has a long coastline boasting with fish, but apparently it doesn’t. Venezuela is like Bolivia. Or perhaps it’s just that fishermen sell their catch overseas, in Dollars, and bring back just enough to cover their bolivar-denominated operative costs in Venezuela (e.g. one sardine).
Friends in mass distribution are expecting a Mad Max scenario over the coming months with their food trucks. The craze is not about regulated products anymore, it’s about anything you can sell. One of them said to me: “You don’t like buying from bachaqueros? Wait ’till you’re buying from pranes.”
Back to the fries.
The French fries McDonald’s sells are imported. There is no CADIVI, SITME, SIMADI, or other combination of acronyms that will make them come back, because there are simply no dollars to feed these subsidised mechanisms. If McD’s bought their fries using dollars at the parallel rate, their combos would be absurdly expensive for their targeted consumers, and most likely they can’t sell them on the side, like other franchises do, because of their stringent franchising rules —which have already been bent to allow the arepitas and nasty yucca fries.
The restaurants that do have French fries either prepare hand crafted fries, or charge an absurd amount for the fries to go with your meal.
The first option makes no sense for a fast food restaurant. I went to three establishments that used to sell their burgers, fried chicken, and sandwiches, comboed with fries, and in every single one of them I had to buy them on the side. The French fries were almost as expensive as the main course.
Also, I visited a fancier franchise, and they didn’t even sell French fries. Their sandwiches came with different variations of potato —including the nonpotato nasty yuca—, and the most popular one:patatas bravas.
So in the end I had to sit down with my daughter and explain to her that, well, there’s no French fries in McDonald’s because there are no French fries in Venezuela.
She thought about it for two seconds and said “if there are no fries in McDonald’s why do they have those two huge French fries in their sign? They should take them down. People might get confused.”
She moved on.