A Restaurant Challenges Venezuela’s President by Selling Empanadas

A car pulled up recently outside a modest restaurant in the state of Guárico in Venezuela’s sprawling savanna. The driver shouted from behind the wheel: “Are you the ones whose business was closed by the government? I want a picture with you!”

Bounding out of the car, the man pulled close to Corina Hernández, 44, one of the owners of the restaurant. He snapped a selfie. “We are all outraged,” he told her.

Corina and her sister Elys Hernández have emerged as unlikely political folk heroes just as Venezuela is heading into its most competitive election in years.

Their transgression? Selling 14 breakfasts and a handful of empanadas to the country’s leading opposition figure. The government’s response came just hours later — an order forcing the sisters to temporarily shut down their business.

Their case was shared widely on the internet, turning them into symbols of defiance for Venezuelans tired of the country’s authoritarian leaders. (The sisters have since gained a large online following well beyond Venezuela and have rebranded their products as “freedom empanadas.”)

But their business is just one of several that have felt the strong arm of the government after offering everyday services to President Nicolás Maduro’s main political opponent, María Corina Machado.

Ms. Machado, a former legislator and longtime critic of Mr. Maduro, isn’t even running, but she is capitalizing on her popularity to campaign alongside and on behalf of the leading opposition presidential candidate.

And everywhere she goes on the campaign trail, the people who help her are harassed by the authorities. In recent weeks, those targeted included six sound equipment operators working a rally, a truck driver retrieving supplies at campaign event in Caracas and four men with canoes who provided transportation in an impoverished Venezuelan outpost.

Some people have been detained for hours, they said in interviews, dragged in to a notorious detention center known as the Helicoide. Others have had equipment seized and businesses shuttered, stripping them of their livelihoods.

“Those days we had nothing to eat,” said the truck driver, Francisco Ecceso, of the 47 days he said his vehicle was held by the police.

For opposition figures and analysts following the decline of the country’s democracy in recent years, such petty persecutions are clear signs that the government is seeking new ways to suppress the opposition and put its power on display.

Whatever the motivation, there is widespread agreement that the vote, scheduled for July 28, poses the biggest electoral challenge to Mr. Maduro’s 11-year hold on power.

For the first time in years, the opposition is united around a single figure — Ms. Machado — who has widespread voter support. When Mr. Maduro’s government barred her from running, her coalition managed to get a surrogate on the ballot, a soft-spoken former diplomat named Edmundo González.

Polls show that a majority of Venezuelans plan to vote for Mr. González, and that they are frustrated by widespread hunger, poverty and soaring levels of migration, which have forced families apart.

The Hernández sisters operate their restaurant, Pancho Grill, in the small town of Corozo Pando, a five-hour drive south of Caracas, in one of the poorest parts of the country. In all, there are five Hernández siblings — four sisters and a brother — and two of them, Corina and Elys, operate the restaurant, along with their aunt Nazareth.

Here, following an economic crisis that began around 2015, people who once held decent jobs now make a living searching for junk to sell, and mothers have resorted to hunting small pig-like báquiros and rodents known locally as picures to feed their children.

The Hernández family has run Pancho Grill for 20 years, selling breakfasts of pulled beef, eggs, beans and corn cakes called arepas to those who can afford them.

Empanadas, a staple of the Venezuelan diet, come fried and crunchy, piping hot from the pan, stuffed with cheese, beef or chicken and served with a generous portion of ají dulce salsa — made with the country’s preferred red pepper — on the side.

Their work space bears the scars of the economic tailspin: Rust coats the kitchen because of a ceiling leak, the refrigerators are broken, and extended power outages mean the Hernández women often work in the dark.

In late May, Ms. Machado stopped at Pancho Grill with her team in between campaign events, buying breakfast and posing for pictures with the Hernández family.

But the opposition leader had barely left when the sisters received new visitors: two tax regulators and a National Guardsman, who said they were temporarily shutting the business down.

The sisters had failed to keep accounting books or declare their earnings, among other issues, the officials told them.

The sisters did not dispute these accusations. But in their two decades in operation, they had never received a visit from the tax agency, they said. And in a region where such infractions are commonplace, no one else in town was inspected that day.

The Hernández family was told the restaurant would be shut down for 15 days.

Representatives from the tax agency did not respond to an email asking for comment.

Initially, the Hernández sisters were devastated. But they had filmed their interaction with the regulators, and sent it to one of their daughters. The young woman decided she might as well share the family’s experience with a few friends.

The video spread quickly online, and soon, outraged supporters were visiting the restaurant as if making a pilgrimage. Donations appeared at the door: spices to season empanada fillings, a 33-pound bag of corn flour. Then funds began rolling in from Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and even as far as Germany.

Many people submitted orders for empanadas, along with instructions for the family to distribute them among needy locals.

At her restaurant recently, Corina Hernández mused that Ms. Machado might have been sent to them by God himself. Government retaliation had, paradoxically, become a blessing.

“Our lives changed after María Corina arrived to buy our empanadas,” she said. “Everything got better.”

After the 15-day closure, the sisters reopened the restaurant and paid a $350 fine with help from their new supporters, they said. Ms. Hernández said that she had not voted since 2006, when she cast her ballot for Hugo Chávez, Mr. Maduro’s predecessor. (Mr. Maduro was Mr. Chávez’s handpicked choice to succeed him as president.)

But now, she said, the penalty from the tax authorities had convinced her that she had to show up on July 28, this time to vote for the opposition.

Though the Hernández family is back in business, not everyone who has had run-ins with the government has been so fortunate.

The six sound operators spent hours in detention, terrified that they’d be locked up for years, one of the men said in an interview. In the state of Zulia, on the country’s western edge, hotels that had hosted Ms. Machado’s team now have “closed” signs posted on their doors.

Employees at one said that the establishment had lost a significant of money after it was forced to cancel First Communion celebrations slated for its two restaurants.

A five-hour drive south of Pancho Grill, in the state of Apure, a wooden boat that was confiscated by the authorities sits upside down on a beach next to a National Guard command station.

Days earlier, Ms. Machado had arrived in the town of Puerto Páez, Apure. Local organizers had passed through the streets with megaphones to announce her presence, and townspeople had affixed yellow balloons to a truck, which she later used as a platform from which to address voters. The streets overflowed with people.

The next day, four boatmen with motorized canoes agreed to ferry Ms. Machado and her team toward their next campaign stop. The boats were confiscated shortly after, according to interviews with three of the boatmen, and the National Guard later visited one of their homes. There, two Guardsmen told a boatman’s wife that they had come with “orders from the bosses in Caracas” and sought to arrest her husband.

He wasn’t home, because he had gone into hiding. Now, the boatmen move from house to house, sleeping in a different place each night.

Representatives for the National Guard did not respond to an email requesting comment.

But the wife, who asked not to be named for fear of further retaliation, said that the decision her husband had made to transport Ms. Machado was the right one. “I don’t regret it,” she said.

“I have faith in God that she is going to win,” she said of Ms. Machado, whom many voters recognize as the true political force behind Mr. González, “and that everything is going to change.”

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