People dine at McDonald's in Caracas
By Corina Pons
CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan fast-food lovers are mourning the disappearance of McDonald's golden staple: the french fry.
A recent shortage at the U.S. fast food chain comes as socialist Venezuela grapples with shortfalls of basic goods ranging from medicines to flour due to strict currency controls that stymie imports.
McDonald's restaurants are coping by replacing the spuds with salad or local fare such as fried yuca or "arepa" corn pancakes - but Golden Arches fans are none too happy about the new meal.
"Hamburgers don't go with arepas and this salad I accepted doesn't taste of anything," moaned student Indira Silva, 27, at a fast-food outlet in affluent eastern Caracas.
"I'm not coming back until the fries do."
Two cashiers at separate restaurants said fries had been missing for two weeks and that business had dropped as a result. One said french fry imports had ground to a halt for lack of hard currency.
Arcos Dorados S.A., McDonald's Corp's key operator in Latin America, did not reply to queries about whether Venezuela's Byzantine three-tiered exchange rate system was to blame.
"There is currently a temporary issue with distribution, which we are trying to resolve," said Sonia Ruseler, senior director for corporate communications at Arcos Dorados.
A protracted labor dispute at U.S. West Coast ports forced McDonald's to ration fries in Japan last year.
Fries sold at McDonald's restaurants in Latin America are imported from Argentina, Canada or the United States, according to Ruseler.
Weary Venezuelans were quick to blame the country's currency controls, implemented more than a decade ago to stem capital flight and viewed as the root of the current economic crisis.
"Fries are definitely imported and there are no dollars to bring them in," said Patricia, whose granddaughter, Arantxa, ran off to play when she learned there were no fries on offer.
"A month ago we came and she did eat, because there were fries," said Patricia, who declined to give her last name.
(Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; editing by Matthew Lewis)