President Hugo Chavez wants to breathe new life into the cocoa industry and has declared it a “strategic product”. The government has started work on a cocoa processing plant in the east of the country, thanks to funds from Cuba, and has already completed a new chocolate factory and chocolate school.
But private cocoa and chocolate producers are wary of what the presidential decree could mean.They fear it could signal a state takeover of the entire industry, and point to government involvement in the coffee sector as a warning sign.
State price controls brought in for that commodity crop have made it almost impossible for growers to make money. Cocoa workers can be hard to find, with better jobs on offer elsewhere. Small cocoa farmers say they welcome government assistance, but want to be consulted on what that help should involve.
“If they don’t take our advice and input on what the industry needs, it will be like giving us food without a knife or fork to eat it with,” says Esteban Martinez, from Asoprocave, an association representing small cocoa farmers across Venezuela.
Others in the industry say they already know what is needed to turn around cocoa production in Venezuela and they have come up with a 15-year plan. “It’s going to require investment in the order of $500m over that period of time,” says Jorge Redmond, president of the chocolate manufacturer El Rey.
Production could be increased to 70,000 tonnes a year, Mr Redmond says, but only if yields are increased on existing plantations, and 25,000 new hectares are found for the crop. “Unfortunately, until now we haven’t found any interface between the government and the private sector to do such a thing,” he adds. Producers in all areas of the industry are unsure whether they will be reaping the rewards of government investment, or paying a high price for state involvement in the cocoa business.