Latin American tour August 2008 – Day 16 – Venezuela reflections

By this morning we were more than ready to leave Venezuela. This leg of the trip had been very rewarding, for me at least, but also frustrating. Next time I’ll know more what to expect. I guess once you get used to the Venezuelan pace of life and the propensity to say ‘no’ as the first response to any request, then maybe the country is easier to handle.

My impression was not helped by even further transport problems trying to leave the – boarding our flight out was chaotic. We were moved from one gate to another then back to our original gate for no apparent reason. We were beginning to wonder if we’d ever actually get away. Taking off, over an hour late, was certainly a relief.

Venezuela is a beautiful country that feels like it’s going through a period of turmoil and a great deal of change and – if it was ever not in turmoil, that is. Everyone you speak to has an opinion on the current political situation, often in support of Chavez, but often also with reservations.

There’s no doubt in my mind that this is a very unequal, unfair society, with what on the surface appears to be an obsession with material gain and appearance. (I didn’t see anyone badly dressed, whatever their income – except perhaps Andrés, who was rather proud of the fact that his clothes were from Primark in the UK rather than Nike!) Something needs to change in Venezuela, but fast change can be counter-productive and comes with its own dangers, as does extending the term and power of those in charge. Even if you think that’s right for the present incumbent, you never know who you’re going to get next.

For cacao growing, I think I’d expected Venezuela to be some kind of model of quality and production standards, given the reputation the country has and the price its beans fetch. Instead I find out that around 30% of Venezuelan beans are not even fermented, and that cacao is a difficult industry to be involved in. In fact Venezuela faces the same problems prevalent in most cacao producing countries – problems with quality control and post-harvest processing, farmers leaving their farms because it’s not worth growing cacao, traders buying and selling beans regardless of quality, varieties mixed up and compromised by planting of poor varieties designed for industrial production rather than taste.

In some ways things are worse for Venezuela, because the demand is so high for Venezuelan beans that they can be sold whatever the condition. Surprisingly, the Dominican Republic has a more organised and advanced industry.

So it’s important that we support the efforts of cooperatives like Chuao and recovery projects like Hacienda Monterosa and Hacienda San José. As ever, the message is to ‘look beyond the label’, not just buy into the marketing message that Venezuelan cacao is always good, just because it’s Venezuelan.

By the afternoon, we were in Panama City for the last leg of the journey, and finding ourselves in a totally different atmosphere. Wandering around the streets without any problem or hassle, Steve and I relaxed with Mojito’s and some great ‘Pacific rim’ fusion food. What a contrast.

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