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 that amount stirs the passions of critics and devotees, turning a luxury crop destined for foreigners into a contentious, and sometimes violent, political issue. Cacao from here is so desirable that European chocolate makers sometimes engage in cut-throat competition to gain access to it. Chocolatiers talk of the unique factors here on the Caribbean’s edge in a way that resembles the goût de terroir, or taste of the earth, crucial to fine wines.
“Venezuela is in a league of its own,” said Gary Guittard, a California chocolate maker who buys Venezuelan cacao. “It takes years to develop the uniqueness of the best cacao, maybe 20 or 30 years, maybe 100, so other nations need to catch up.”
Viewed as a treasure abroad, cacao is seen differently by many Venezuelans, from the president to the poor. A loophole for this nature reserve allows cacao haciendas to dot the forest, near villages populated by descendants of African slaves and near poor migrants who live in squatter villages in the park.
Despite partnering with the government in a cacao venture in Barinas, Mr. Chávez’s home state, Chocolates El Rey, a leading company in Venezuela’s gourmet chocolate industry, was powerless to stop squatters who invaded the farm earlier this decade and still occupy it.
“We could be a world leader with cacao, what beef is for Argentina or rice for Thailand,” said Jorge Redmond, Chocolates El Rey’s chief executive, reflecting on the industry’s upheaval. “Instead we’re faced with 52 different permits to export a container of our product, compared with four steps to export when Chávez came to power.”