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Whose victory in Venezuela?

Both opposition parties and Hugo Chávez claim victory in regional elections in Venezuela. Vincent Be

The political grip enjoyed by Venezuela's President Hugo Chávez has loosened a little after opposition parties made some significant gains in regional elections.

Five of the twenty two governorships up for grabs went to opposition candidates. Gains were especially strong in economically powerful and well-populated areas such as Carabobo, Zulia and Miranda.

The newly created United Socialist Party lost four of the five municipalities in the capital of Caracas, holding on to only the poorest section.

The results are being seen as an electoral step forward for the opposition, especially when compared to their performance in the previous regional poll. However, Chávez’s United Socialists maintain a strong majority, and will govern states made up of about two-thirds of the South American country’s population.

The National Assembly, which is on a different voting cycle, meanwhile remains overwhelming in the hands of government supporters.

Chávez himself did not participate in Sunday's contest, he won a six-year term in 2006.

Inevitably, though, he was a dominant figure in the lengthy campaigns which were widely seen as a test-run for the United Socialists created to unify a number of organisations that support the self-styled Bolivarian revolutionary.

They faced an opposition much better organised than that of the last regional elections in 2004, which, fractured in the wake of a coup attempt.

In an increasingly political country where nightly discussions of socialism and capitalism are perhaps only outnumbered by those of baseball, passion for and against El Presidente triggered a record 65 per cent turnout.

Both sides claimed victory on Monday. The opposition celebrated their advances and the prospect that the socialist may have “lost the heart of the country,” in the words of pollster Luis Vicente Leon.

But Chávez saw his ability to maintain supporters in large majorities ten years into his rule as a mandate for his continued revolutionary project.

He said the outcome “ratifies the path for the construction of socialism”. And in a manner reminiscent of the night he lost the December 2007 vote on a proposed constitutional overhaul that would have abolished presidential term limits and introduced a radical participatory socialist democracy, he congratulated his opponents on their victory and praised his country's democracy.

“Who can say there is a dictatorship in Venezuela? Well, maybe some will continue to say so,” he said.

Earlier this month, a poll of Latin American countries found Venezuelans most likely to say that voting is the best way to change things. But it also found them to be continually worried about crime.

Personal insecurity - routinely cited by citizens as the largest shortcoming of the government - has risen in the last ten years and made Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world.

Despite high levels of support for the Chavez government’s policies, which have redistributed oil incomes to fund health, education and food-subsidy programs, many Venezuelans remain unsatisfied with some issues of day-to-day governance, such as crime, corruption, trash collection and emergency services.

The people up for election in regional contests were those that largely deal with these problems, and the opposition was able to make political capital scoring victories in key urban areas.

“The candidates in the metropolitan cities haven’t been able to provide for every need the people have. And there’s a lot of corruption, and things like that are always punished,” said Coromoto Jaraba Pineda, a supporter of the government who works at AvilaTV, a state-run and left-wing youth station in Caracas.

She said she can’t be sure of where the funding for her channel will now be coming from, since the mayor’s office of greater Caracas, its former patron, fell to the opposition on Sunday.

Overall, 2008 has seen key victories for the left in South America. In Bolivia, president Evo Morales handily won a recall referendum vote, the new constitutional referendum supported by Ecuadorian president Rafael Correa passed, and Paraguay inaugurated a new leftist president, former Catholic Bishop Fernando Lugo.

Chávez is an ally of all of these leaders, as he is of most of the left-of-centre governments which now run most of South America.

And he looms large on the continent because of his power, popularity, outspoken style, and access to oil dollars.

Though current low oil prices are certainly a difficulty for Venezuela, there haven’t been signs of any immediate need to dip into the country’s sizable reserves. Barring another referendum, Chávez will leave office in 2012. But the blows to his movement of his exit and the moderate losses of this election may be balanced by the success of institutionalising his ideas into a party and by the democratic advances of sympathetic governments in South America.

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The secret anti-capitalist history of McDonald’s

As a new film focuses on the real founder of McDonald’s, his grandson reveals the unlikely story behind his family’s long-lost restaurant.

One afternoon in about the year 1988, an 11-year-old boy was eating at McDonald’s with his family in the city of Manchester, New Hampshire. During the meal, he noticed a plaque on the wall bearing a man’s face and declaring him the founder of McDonald’s. These plaques were prevalent in McDonald’s restaurants across the US at the time. The face – gleaming with pride – belonged to Ray Kroc, a businessman and former travelling salesman long hailed as the creator of the fast food franchise.

Flickr/Phillip Pessar

But this wasn’t the man the young boy munching on fries expected to see. That man was in the restaurant alongside him. “I looked at my grandfather and said, ‘But I thought you were the founder?’” he recalls. “And that’s when, in the late Eighties, early Nineties, my grandfather went back on the [McDonald’s] Corporation to set the history straight.”

Jason McDonald French, now a 40-year-old registered nurse with four children, is the grandson of Dick McDonald – the real founder of McDonald’s. When he turned to his grandfather as a confused child all those years ago, he spurred him on to correct decades of misinformation about the mysterious McDonald’s history. A story now being brought to mainstream attention by a new film, The Founder.


Jason McDonald French

“They [McDonald’s Corporation] seemed to forget where the name actually did come from,” says McDonald French, speaking on the phone from his home just outside Springfield, Massachusetts.

His grandfather Dick was one half of the McDonald brothers, an entrepreneurial duo of restaurateurs who started out with a standard drive-in hotdog stand in California, 1937.

Dick's father, an Irish immigrant, worked in a shoe factory in New Hampshire. He and his brother made their success from scratch. They founded a unique burger restaurant in San Bernardino, around 50 miles east of where they had been flogging hotdogs. It would become the first McDonald’s restaurant.

Most takeout restaurants back then were drive-ins, where you would park, order food from your car, and wait for a “carhop” server to bring you your meal on a plate, with cutlery. The McDonald brothers noticed that this was a slow, disorganised process with pointless costly overheads.

So they invented fast food.

***

In 1948, they built what came to be known as the “speedy system” for a fast food kitchen from scratch. Dick was the inventor out of the two brothers - as well as the bespoke kitchen design, he came up with both the iconic giant yellow “M” and its nickname, the “Golden Arches”.

“My grandfather was an innovator, a man ahead of his time,” McDonald French tells me. “For someone who was [only] high school-educated to come up with the ideas and have the foresight to see where the food service business was going, is pretty remarkable.”


The McDonald brothers with a milkshake machine.

McDonald French is still amazed at his grandfather’s contraptions. “He was inventing machines to do this automated system, just off-the-cuff,” he recalls. “They were using heat lamps to keep food warm beforehand, before anyone had ever thought of such a thing. They customised their grills to whip the grease away to cook the burgers more efficiently. It was six-feet-long, which was just unheard of.”

Dick even custom-made ketchup and mustard dispensers – like metal fireplace bellows – to speed up the process of garnishing each burger. The brothers’ system, which also cut out waiting staff and the cost of buying and washing crockery and cutlery, brought customers hamburgers from grill to counter in 30 seconds.


The McDonald brothers as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

McDonald French recounts a story of the McDonald brothers working late into the night, drafting and redrafting a blueprint for the perfect speedy kitchen in chalk on their tennis court for hours. By 3am, when they finally had it all mapped out, they went to bed – deciding to put it all to paper the next day. The dry, desert climate of San Bernardino meant it hadn’t rained in months.

 “And, of course, it rained that night in San Bernardino – washed it all away. And they had to redo it all over again,” chuckles McDonald French.

In another hiccup when starting out, a swarm of flies attracted by the light descended on an evening event they put on to drum up interest in their restaurant, driving customers away.


An original McDonald's restaurant, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

***

These turned out to be the least of their setbacks. As depicted in painful detail in John Lee Hancock’s film, Ray Kroc – then a milkshake machine salesman – took interest in their restaurant after they purchased six of his “multi-mixers”. It was then that the three men drew up a fateful contract. This signed Kroc as the franchising agent for McDonald’s, who was tasked with rolling out other McDonald’s restaurants (the McDonalds already had a handful of restaurants in their franchise). 

Kroc soon became frustrated at having little influence. He was bound by the McDonalds’ inflexibility and stubborn standards (they wouldn’t allow him to cut costs by purchasing powdered milkshake, for example). The film also suggests he was fed up with the lack of money he was making from the deal. In the end, he wriggled his way around the contract by setting up the property company “McDonald’s Corporation” and buying up the land on which the franchises were built.


Ray Kroc, as depicted in The Founder. Photo: The Founder

Kroc ended up buying McDonald’s in 1961, for $2.7m. He gave the brothers $1m each and agreeing to an annual royalty of half a per cent, which the McDonald family says they never received.

“My father told us about the handshake deal [for a stake in the company] and how Kroc had gone back on his word. That was very upsetting to my grandfather, and he never publicly spoke about it,” McDonald French says. “It’s probably billions of dollars. But if my grandfather was never upset about it enough to go after the Corporation, why would we?”

They lost the rights to their own name, and had to rebrand their original restaurant “The Big M”. It was soon put out of business by a McDonald’s that sprang up close by.


An original McDonald restaurant in Arizona. Photo: Flickr/George

Soon after that meal when the 11-year-old Jason saw Kroc smiling down from the plaque for the first time, he learned the true story of what had happened to his grandfather. “It’s upsetting to hear that your family member was kind of duped,” he says. “But my grandfather always had a great respect for the McDonald’s Corporation as a whole. He never badmouthed the Corporation publicly, because he just wasn’t that type of man.”

Today, McDonalds' corporate website acknowledges the McDonalds brothers as the founders of the original restaurant, and credits Kroc with expanding the franchise. The McDonald’s Corporation was not involved with the making of The Founder, which outlines this story. I have contacted it for a response to this story, but it does not wish to comment.

***

Dick McDonald’s principles jar with the modern connotations of McDonald’s – now a garish symbol of global capitalism. The film shows Dick’s attention to the quality of the food, and commitment to ethics. In one scene, he refuses a lucrative deal to advertise Coca Cola in stores. “It’s a concept that goes beyond our core beliefs,” he rants. “It’s distasteful . . . crass commercialism.”

Kroc, enraged, curses going into business with “a beatnik”.


Photo: The Founder

Dick’s grandson agrees that McDonald’s has strayed from his family’s values. He talks of his grandfather’s generosity and desire to share his wealth – the McDonald brothers gave their restaurant to its employees, and when Dick returned to New Hampshire after the sale, he used some of the money to buy new Cadillacs with air conditioning for his old friends back home.

“[McDonald’s] is definitely a symbol of capitalism, and it definitely sometimes has a negative connotation in society,” McDonald French says. “If it was still under what my grandfather had started, I imagine it would be more like In'N'Out Burger [a fast food chain in the US known for its ethical standards] is now, where they pay their employees very well, where they stick to the simple menu and the quality.”

He adds: “I don’t think it would’ve ever blossomed into this, doing salads and everything else. It would’ve stayed simple, had quality products that were great all the time.

“I believe that he [my grandfather] wasn’t too unhappy that he wasn’t involved with it anymore.”


The McDonald’s Museum, Ray Kroc’s first franchised restaurant in the chain. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Despite his history, Dick still took his children and grandchildren to eat at McDonald’s together – “all the time” – as does Jason McDonald French with his own children now. He’s a cheeseburger enthusiast, while his seven-year-old youngest child loves the chicken nuggets. But there was always a supersize elephant in the room.

“My grandfather never really spoke of Ray Kroc,” he says. “That was always kind of a touchy subject. It wasn’t until years later that my father told us about how Kroc was not a very nice man. And it was the only one time I ever remember my grandfather talking about Kroc, when he said: ‘Boy, that guy really got me.’”

The Founder is in UK cinemas from today.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.