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Stamping its identity on the chocolate market

Venezuela produces some of the world's best cacao — so why doesn't it make chocolate?

Quintero’s company produces chocolate that’s “good for your health.” She claims the husk of the cacao seed contains theobromine-rich alkaloids that promote muscle growth and strengthen the heart. Natural chocolate is also believed to stimulate serotonin levels in the brain that help to alleviate depression.

Unlike many commercial producers, the company uses 100 percent cacao butter (commercial producers often substitute it for soya butter and sell the highly valued cacao butter to the pharmaceutical and cosmetics industry). Quintera claims using cacao butter makes her chocolate less fattening because it does not sit on the lining of the stomach.

But despite easy access to some of the finest raw ingredients, Quintero said her company cannot export — its product is sold only in Venezuela. A highly overvalued bolivar, which the government has fixed at 2.15 to the dollar for several years, makes their chocolate uncompetitive on the international market, she said.

One chocolate producer that does manage to export is Chocolates El Rey. Based in Barquisimeto, El Rey has a much larger operation and its chocolate bars are sold in the U.S., Canada, Japan, parts of Europe and much of Latin America.

The process, however, is not without its difficulties. Jorge Redmond, who bought the company in 1973, complains that the current government has created a bureaucratic minefield for exporters. “When [Hugo] Chavez arrived in power there were four steps that you had to do to export,” he said. “Today it’s 52 steps. Each container requires 52 official steps — permits, stamps, documents … it’s a problem, we’ve had to set up a department just to deal with those things.”

While the government shows little interest in assisting chocolate exporters it has made gains in upping exports of cacao, said Rodriguez.

A project labeled the “Chocolate Route” provides workshops, talks and free advice from specialist technicians for some 5,000 cacao producers. It has even developed a genetically modified strain of cacao that it claims can grow in half the time of traditional varieties.

The efforts appear to have borne fruit. Cacao production has risen steadily since socialist president Chavez took power 10 years ago. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Venezuelan cacao production jumped by 35 percent between 1999 and 2007. But Venezuelan cacao production is still meager by world standards (Cote D'Ivoire produced 1,384,000 metric tons in 2007, compared to Venezuela's 18,911 metric tons). Until recently, the emphasis in Venezuela had been on quality rather than quantity, said Rodriguez.

Rodriguez said the government has made efforts to generate a home chocolate industry but that so far success has been minimal. It hopes to open up chocolate-making school in the future but a healthy chocolate industry is still a work in progress.

Redmond said his company actually nets a loss on exports which he subsidizes by profits made at home. But he sees the company’s future as an exporter and hopes conditions for exporting will improve at some point.

“We have a scheme at our company," Redmond said, "which is to transform Venezuelan primary materials at home, add value to it, so that we can compete with other producers in the world who come to the third world to buy their primary material and leave with much of the profit."