When I was growing up, chocolate was almost never found in our house. My mother, not a fan of sweets in general, was adamant about children eating healthy food, and for her, healthy food meant little sugar. There was only ever one exception: Venezeulan chocolate. You see, I was born in Venezuela, along with both of my parents, and we moved to the United States when I was three years old. The only time my mother would allow chocolate into our house was when friends and family would bring it back from Venezuela. It was heaven.
Venezuelan chocolate was such a huge part of my childhood, but it has been almost entirely absent in the conversation on chocolate. I wanted to explore it more and find out why it isn’t more popular in the United States. When I asked my mother about her experiences, she said the same thing, “You cannot find Venezuelan chocolate in the United States, except maybe in Miami.” I continued to question her. Her perspective as a Venezuelan consuming chocolate made me curious about what chocolate means to non-American consumers, but while my initial question was to explore how people view chocolate in Venezuela, I ended up asking what is Venezuelan chocolate, and why doesn’t the rest of the world eat it? I found that the Venezuelan cacao bean is unique, but the government restrictive, and while I had learned to expect quality from the Venezuelan brand, the rest of the world regularly turns to more established European brands.
So, what is Venezuelan chocolate, and what does chocolate mean to a Venezuelan? “Chocolate means happiness. When I’m sad, I eat a bar of chocolate, and it makes my life better,” my mother told me. She reminisced on her childhood, “Oh, when I was a teenager, I would buy half a meter of chocolate for one Bolivar. It was huge! I would go to the movie cinema and eat it all, but the best chocolate was always at Christmas.” My mother tied chocolate to family and youth as much as I did. There was even a saying, she said, “If you don’t love chocolate, you don’t love your mom.” To her, this just meant that everyone loved chocolate, but to me, I started to suspect that the same advertisement ploys that we saw from the beginnings of chocolate marketing had only continued. Companies like Nestle were still targeting families and children.
When I asked her what her favorite chocolate was, she replied, “Miramar, the kind with the fruit inside of it and Toronto. You wouldn’t like them, though. They had a big almond inside of it.” Both of candies that my mother listed were made by Nestle Savoy. Nestle, a Swiss company, is making “A classic Venezuelan candy” (“Toronto”). Well if Nestle was branding Swiss chocolate to Venezuelans, they would have no reason to brand Venezuelan chocolate to the rest of the world. It seemed like this was an example of the provenance paradox where quality is determined by the nationality of the product’s origin (Deshp). For a Venezuelan, according to my mother, “There is no better chocolate than Venezuelan chocolate. It tastes unlike anything else.” For the rest of the world however, when we think of quality chocolate, we think Switzerland. Nestle, then, sells Venezuelan’s their Venezuelan chocolate but gives the rest of the world the Swiss brand they expect.
It was very clear that Nestle, and thus Switzerland, was very much a part of the Venezuelan chocolate story. I asked if there were many Venezuelan chocolate companies, and my mother replied, “No, most of the cacao goes to other countries. Switzerland, Nestle, owns most of the farms, I think.” Despite the fact that most of the cacao is produced in Africa and South America, it is rare that we see African or South American chocolate. It’s not quite the same problem as clothing made in China being sold with American brands because chocolate began in South America, with the Aztecs and the Maya. There is a problem of cultural appropriation here as well as Western culture dominance. “For centuries, [Venezuela] was the world’s top producer. European monarchs sipped concoctions made from Venezuelan cacao”, but now it is not even in the top ten producers of cacao (Romero; Mattyasovsky).
The four largest producers of cacao are Cote d’Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, and Cameroon, but Venezuela is the largest producer of the Criollo bean, considered to be the finest and most flavorful cacao (Mattyasovsky; “The Cocoa Bean.”). “Venezuela produces about the same amount of cacao as it did three centuries ago: 15,000 tons a year, less than 1 percent of global cacao output”, but “Today every last kilo of cacao from Chuao [the region in Venezuela famous for the quality of its cacao] goes to Amedei,” an Italian company (Romero; Well). Venezuela, with all its potential and reputation for quality chocolate, instead gives the cacao to European countries with a more luxurious brand. If the Venezuelan cacao is so special, should it not be known as such? Should it not have the recognition?
When I asked what made Venezuelan chocolate different, my mother told me about the Venezuela cocoa beans. “The cacao bean in Venezuela is different than anything else I have tasted. It is unlike any other. It’s not bitter at all. It’s sweet,” she said. She told me that people didn’t like powdered hot chocolate. They used the original recipe, the same recipe the Europeans brought from Aztec and Mayan communities. “The people in the small villages make hot chocolate from it. They will not use the powder. They grind the bean and mix it with hot water. That and a little bit of milk. That’s it. It is the best hot chocolate in the world,” she told me. If the cocoa bean my mom was talking about was the Criollo bean, it seemed like all the hype was true. Why, then, was the Criollo bean not more popular? The Criollo bean only represents 5% of all cocoa beans grown, and the main reason seems to be that it’s just plain difficult to grow and lacks resilience to disease (Kowalchuk).
When I asked my mother if she knew anything about cacao, I was pleasantly surprised to find out she did, and her revelations about the government in Venezuela led me to question more about other farms. It seemed that the instability in the government, even twenty years ago, hurt potential farmers and investors. My mom told me her story:
“We wanted to make a farm with a cacao and coffee. The government wouldn’t help us out with the land. The government owns fertile land. The government would lease the land for ten years. They give you a loan to produce farms on the government-owned land. If you farm it for ten years, they’ll give you the land, but there was so much corruption. The loan for the farm is about twenty million bolivares. That was five million dollars at the time. The government tells you to take out a loan for thirty million bolivares and give them ten. It’s too much money. People ask for the investment money from the government, but the people who get it are corrupt. They are friends with the government officials, and they don’t end up doing anything with the land. They just take the money.”
My mother’s experience with a corrupt government and the cacao bean’s general propensity to sickness was mirrored in other accounts. When a farmer in Venezuela was interviewed about his cacao farm, he lamented the fact that “So far this decade, squatters have tried to wrest control of his land, a fungus nearly wiped out his entire crop, government inspectors have solicited bribes and export officials have given him countless headaches with demands for a barrage of permits” (Romero). The individuals in government were unwilling to help their people without a direct benefit to them. The land was leased out to people close to government officials who would split the profits with them. In the end, it was too expensive to pay for the farming and the corruption, my mother never went through with the plan. The government makes itself an obstacle in cacao production despite all the benefits Venezuela cacao could give to the country.
Now with the turmoil in the government even worse than before, Venezuela has halted all exports for all countries. Cacao farmers sit with sacks of harvested cacao ready to be traded in their warehouses, living off of nothing despite the promises of the government to promote Venezuelan cacao globally (The Associated Press). It is the same problem in a different time, even with the death of Hugo Chavez, the late president of Venezuela. Venezuelan cacao is already considered fine cacao. It already has a demand, a place in the market. It is sought after, and instead it is sold to luxury European brands to be put into fine “European” chocolate. It has everything necessary to be considered luxurious in its own right. It lacks only a government void of corruption and the cultural power that only centuries of appropriation and dominance can buy you.
Despite everything that Venezuelan chocolate means to me, it seems that it cannot exist without the weight and influences of politics: the politics of a government unwilling to forgo its own corruption for the success of its people and the politics of a centuries old battle for European dominance. Now, the dominance is for money and for markets, but it is bought with Venezuelan cacao and the chocolate recipe that the Europeans took hundreds of years ago.