The televisions at Arepa Zone are tuned not to street protests in Caracas but to snowboarding competitions somewhere cold and peaceful. The Latin music is loud and upbeat.
But in each corner of the restaurant in Northwest Washington echo the hopes and fears of Venezuelans closely tracking the turmoil engulfing their native country.
“I’m very optimistic, but I also have goosebumps,” said Anakarenina Perez, 32, as she finished lunch with a fellow Venezuelan. “We’ve gotten our hopes up before, only to have them knocked down.”
From Washington to South Florida, Venezuelan expats in the United States are anxiously awaiting the outcome of the tense political standoff that has gripped their country since Wednesday, when an opposition figure defied President Nicolás Maduro and declared himself the nation’s legitimate leader.
The crisis quickly went international, as the Trump administration threw its support behind the young opposition leader and Maduro told American diplomats they had 72 hours to leave the country.
Since the election of socialist firebrand Hugo Chávez in 1998, Venezuela has suffered a series of crises, including a failed U.S.-backed coup in 2002. Since Chavez’s death in 2013, however, his successor, Maduro, has grown increasingly unpopular as the country’s economy has collapsed.
The situation has led to an exodus from Venezuela, with tens of thousands coming to the United States in recent years to ask for asylum.
Their ranks include Perez’s lunch companion, Ambar Garcia. The 25-year-old fled to the United States in March 2018 after being attacked following a protest march, she said, by armed groups allied with the government.
“They told me, ‘You’ll never march again,’ ” Garcia said.
Like Perez, she hoped that Juan Guaidó, the 35-year-old head of the opposition-controlled National Assembly, would be able to outmaneuver Maduro and inaugurate some change.
“It’s been a long time since we saw something like this,” she said.
“It’s a light in the dark,” added Perez.
Across the country — and the restaurant — Venezuelans nervously wondered what would come next.
As she ate an appetizer of Venezuelan fried cheese sticks called tequenos and waited for her husband, Ivonne Villarroel thought of her mother, who had just returned to Venezuela a month ago.
“I told her to stay,” the 30-year-old said, “but she went back to take care of her mother.”
Her mother had recently seen a private doctor for her high blood pressure. When it came time to pay, Villarroel said, the doctor asked for sugar instead of money.
“In Venezuela, you go to school for 10 years and get two degrees, for what, two packets of sugar?” she said.
Villarroel said she worried that Guaidó would be imprisoned, like previous opposition leaders, or killed.
A few seats away, Mariana Solorzano had an even darker prediction.
“I think that this guy, Guaidó, is just another way for the government to pretend that change is coming,” she said.
Solorzano, 28, said she came to the United States last year after her activism led to threats against her by groups allied with Maduro’s government. Last year, she said, she was pulled from her car, blindfolded and kidnapped for three hours before suddenly being released on the side of a road. She is now seeking asylum here.
“I don’t think anything is going to change” in Venezuela, she said.
Even the owners of Arepa Zone have starkly different takes on what could happen.
Ali Arellano, 48, said that Guaidó was “a light at the end of the tunnel, a light towards an exit from this dictatorship of 20 years.”
“Something has to happen,” he said. “This is the moment.”
But his business partner wasn’t so sure.
“Most people are optimistic, which scares me,” said Gabriela Febres, 28. “It’s been 20 years. Until I see something [more], it’s hard for me to grasp what all this really means.”
“I’ve lost my optimism,” she continued. “We’ve gone out to the streets so many times, and we continue to do it. But Venezuelans have this thing . . . [where] they always find a way to adapt. They are essentially surviving, day to day.”
Both owners have family back in Venezuela whom they are worried about. Febres said her father has a master’s degree from Cornell but makes just $20 a month as a college professor in Caracas.
“My dad went on Wednesday to protest,” she said. “He said he saw people with suitcases full of money, dumping it in the street because it’s worthless. That’s how bad the inflation is.”
In Doral, a heavily Venezuelan city in Miami-Dade County, Fla., expats were similarly consumed with what was going on across the Caribbean.
In the kitchen of Pepito’s Plaza, a Venezuelan restaurant inside a gas station, four employees watched a CNN update on the developments in their home country.
Just outside Pepito’s, 40-year-old Luis Sanchez said the White House’s decision to immediately back Guaidó will help the self-declared interim president solidify support with Venezuela’s military.
“Whoever is behind this, it is the first intelligent political move made against Maduro,” said Sanchez, whose brother-in-law was shot in the chest by police during a protest. “But it is too early to celebrate. We’ve been close to getting rid of Maduro before, and then nothing changes.”
For some Venezuelans, talking about the situation back home caused them to break down in tears.
Ivette Olivares, 49, said she worried about her mother in Maracaibo, who had recently spent time in a squalid hospital after a stroke, and her brother, who had been blacklisted for supporting the opposition.
But she no longer worried about her older sister, who passed away four years ago after being unable to get treatment for Crohn’s disease. “She was never given a chance,” she said.
Olivares, who lives in Alexandria, Va., said she was hopeful that the tides were shifting in Venezuela.
“I think this is it,” she said. “The perfect storm. I hope so. I really hope so.”