Chocolate and Chávez

Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves. Big deal. This is Valentine’s week, when cocoa matters more than crude — and what’s important is that Venezuela produces the world’s best chocolate.

Problem is, will politics soon drag down Venezuela’s cacao (cocoa) industry the way it’s reduced the country’s oil output? On Feb. 14, at least, that’s a worrisome question, especially inside gourmet chocolate shops like Romanicos.

The Miami boutique, at the corner of Coral Way and Southwest 18th Avenue, is one of South Florida’s most popular links to the criollo, arguably the finest cacao bean on the planet. The criollo, which probably originated in Venezeula, is a New World culinary treasure — perhaps the only dark chocolate that’s not bitter and is naturally sweet without sugar. The Maya and the Aztecs considered it chocolate for royalty. Ditto the Spanish conquistadors.

And ditto Romanicos customers, who are making their own winter pilgrimages this week for the truffles and bonbons. To chocolophiles like them, eating milk chocolate on Valentine’s Day instead of dark, rich criollo is like drinking Bud Lite instead of Guinness on St. Patrick’s Day.

“I always buy these chocolates for special occasions because they’re very unique,” says Susie Riggins, a South Miami schoolteacher. “Their taste is very intense. You really can’t find it elsewhere.”

But Romanicos owner Alejandra Bigai is beginning to wonder if, in the coming years or even months, she’ll be able to find enough chocolate made from Venezuelan criollo. As heretical as it sounds to a Venezuelan native like Bigai, she fears someday she may have to use criollo from other places. “I’m looking,” she says, “for other options.”

Call it a matter of chocolate and Chávez, as in the late Hugo Chávez, who founded the socialist revolution that rules Venezuela today. The Chavista government is notorious for nationalizing private businesses, and critics say it wants to take over cacao production, too.

That clash makes the criollo’s future in Venezuela look less robust.

The criollo wasn’t always this coveted. While the bean is sublime, it’s also fragile and, compared to other cacao trees, about as prolific as panda bears. “It’s very prone to illnesses,” says Bigai, “and it doesn’t give as much production.” As a result, in the 19th and 20th centuries, the criollo became a less attractive investment and all but disappeared.

But in the 21st century, global demand for dark, single-origin (unblended) chocolate is on the rise again — and so is the criollo. Which means the eyes of the chocolate world are on Venezuela, whose criollo is considered the gold standard. Or so say Venezuelans like Bigai, who brought the chocolate recipes of her abuela (grandmother) from Maracaibo to Miami.

“It’s like wine,” says Bigai. “The soil makes a big difference. That’s why Venezuelan chocolate is so good.”

Still, the bad blood between Chavistas and business hangs over the criollo comeback. Right now the criollo accounts for only 7 percent of the world’s chocolate output, and Venezuela’s political and economic strife casts doubts on whether the country can ratchet up production to satisfy a market that has more than doubled in the past decade.

“The criollo cacao is a very exciting natural product, a sort of wonder product,” says Jorge Redmond, president of Venezuela’s leading chocolate maker, El Rey. But while he says companies like his are having success finding ways to increase criollo crop yields, he accuses the Chavistas of trying to squeeze out private producers with tactics like onerous red tape and land invasions. “The communist idea of having the government own and operate everything is sort of what they have in mind.”

Not long before Chávez died last year, however, he called the criollo a “strategic” commodity — like Venezuela’s oil — that should be in public hands. That’s particularly true, say Chavista officials, since Venezuelan criollo can fetch a thousand dollars more per ton (more than $4,000) than criollo grown elsewhere.

Even so, la revoluci ó n’s business track record is poor at best: For all its oil wealth, Venezuela is mired in a deep economic crisis. Entrepreneurs like Redmond fear the socialist model would thwart the country’s cacao push, which could require as much as half a billion dollars in investment during this decade. “This is not a project Venezuela can afford to screw up,” says Redmond.

But at least on this Valentine’s Day, Venezuelan criollo can still be had at shops like Romanicos — and Bigai’s customers can still taste chocolate the way her abuela meant them to.

Tim Padgett is WLRN’s Americas editor.

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