As a food writer, I have been left watching enviously from the sidelines as my colleagues mine Wikileaks for a stream of stories, round-ups, and links. But thanks to Alexis Madrigal at The Atlantic, I can finally join in the fun.
According to a cable that was supposed to remain classified until 2030, back in January, the State Department sent its highest-level operatives to sample the arepas, or "Venezualan-style thick cornmeal tortilla" at the opening of Hugo Chavez's new, government-run restaurant chain, "Arepera Socialista."
The Venezuelan staples were sold at the subsidized price of 5 Bolivares Fuertes (roughly one dollar, or as the State Department notes, "about a fourth of their regular price"). From the U.S. perspective, the restaurant should be understood as the Venezuelan government's:
latest effort at setting up alternatives to the private market, branding national symbols, like the "arepa," as part of the Bolivarian Revolution, and providing tangible benefits to its electoral base before the September legislative elections.
On the other hand, according to Chavez, the restaurant was another blow struck against "capitalist usury."
Be that as it may, the State Department operatives (or "EmbOffs," as they call themselves) pronounced the arepas to be "tasty," and provided a thorough description of the restaurant's décor and clientele, in a cable sent to embassies as far afield as Thessaloniki and Ottawa:
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.
Barely a fortnight later, according to critics of the Chavez regime, the inaugural branch of Arepera Socialista was "facing supply problems, from lack of flour to lack of ingredients" and "its customers are getting mad at the bad service, random hours, and long lines." Impressively, this problem had been foreseen by U.S. officials, who ended their summary with this prescient warning:
The challenge will be meeting demand without raising the subsidized price or cutting quality.
Although this cable seems like light relief compared to the nuclear threats and military secrets exposed elsewhere in the Wikileaks cache, it is interesting to note that the U.S. government clearly understands the political power of food, keeping a close eye on its supply, pricing, and distribution.