Congress Is Out for the Summer

— Ed Engoron, Co-Founder of Choclatique

Not A Moment To Soon

After months of debates over the Wall Street bailouts, the stimulus bill, the government take-over of the automobile industry, cash for clunkers and health care reform, Congress finally adjourned for their summer recess. Just in the nick of time. I’m not sure if they needed a vacation from all the long hours at work or we needed a vacation from them.

While I like to think I’m well informed (compared to the people I see on Jaywalking on the old Leno “Tonight Show”), I am not a particularly political person. I have never had the urge to run for any elected office. After all, in today’s world who would ever want to put themselves or their families through that tortuous process? I was once appointed as a County Commissioner overseeing the botanical gardens, parks and arboretums in Los Angeles; not a particularly challenging position. I have been in the media spotlight with my “10 minutes of fame” on ABC both in the news and entertainment divisions, the latter with a series of food shows—not exactly controversial. I am not anywhere near as glib as Bill O’Reilly, as good looking as Keith Olbermann, or as wise as the late Walter Cronkite.

I am fairly well-educated; I keep up on current affairs; I work my butt off in both of my small businesses where we still believe in the strength of the American work ethic. I have voted for both Republicans and Democrats if I thought they made sense and shared my views on America. I have written a letter to every incoming president (since I could vote) Republican and Democrat—wishing them the best of luck and offering them my prayers for success. After all, whether or not I voted for them they are my president. If I don’t seem to be anyone special, you’re right; I’m not. I’m a lot like you—a middle of the road, moderate American.

I am quite disturbed over many of the events going on in Washington and in other like-minded Western European capitals today with proposed legislation leading us down the path of a “Nanny State” where the government is all-knowing, all-ruling and where we citizens take virtually no responsibility for our own actions.

I saw an article from London this week where Parliament is trying to regulate the size of soda cans and candy bars. I don’t see any reason to reduce the size of a chocolate bar from 58 grams to 50 grams all in the name of obesity and weight control. If one is so inclined to eat chocolate (which I hope most of you are), what’s to keep you from eating a second, third or fourth bar or drink a second can of pop? Government has a place in our lives, but it should be limited—not in our business, doctor’s office, bedrooms or our kitchens.

Over our 233 year history, government hasn’t run the most successful of enterprises. Most have failed to be cost effective or have neglected to deliver the programs as promised—are all fraught with fraud and abuse hurting the very citizens they were created to help.

After listening to the congressional debates this week, I read a “New York Times” article about Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez and his continuing interference in the commerce of his nation’s cacao industry (cacao from which chocolate is made). A great example why governments should stick to those powers granted to them by their constitutions.

The article, In Venezuela, Plantations of Cacao Stir Bitterness by Simon Romero, talks about Kai Rosenberg who owns a cacao plantation in Venezuela. In the years since President Chávez has come to office, he has for all intents and purposes, nationalized the cacao growers. In that time, squatters have tried to control Rosenberg’s plantation, a fungus nearly wiped out his entire crop, government inspectors and export officials have solicited bribes and officials have created a mountain of red tape and the requirement for endless permits.

Cacao from Venezuela is so desirable that European chocolate makers sometimes engage in cut-throat competition to gain access to it. Chocolatiers talk of the unique factors on the Caribbean’s edge in a way that resembles the goût de terroir, or taste of the earth, so crucial to fine wines. My friend and quality California chocolate maker, Gary Guittard, says, “Venezuela is in a league of its own [when it comes to chocolate]. It takes years to develop the uniqueness of the best cacao, maybe 20 or 30 years, maybe 100.” It is a Venezuelan natural treasure and shouldn’t be wasted.

President Chávez, usually obsessed with selling his country’s oil reserves and making derogatory comments about the United States, recently challenged the reasons why chocolate made from Venezuelan cacao should fetch such high sums in United State and Europe. He singled out cacao grower William Harcourt-Cooze, a plantation owner for particularly harsh comments.

President Chávez said after listening to residents’ complaints about Mr. Harcourt-Cooze’s farm. “…that he is getting rich while the workers are living in poverty.” Following these comments government inspectors began an investigation into Harcourt-Cooze’s alleged labor and land violations. While later vindicated, it was a distraction from the commerce of Venezuelan cacao.

Other growers have not been so fortunate. After partnering with Chávez and the government in a cacao venture in Barinas, the El Rey Chocolate Company, one of the leading companies in Venezuela’s gourmet chocolate industry, is still unable to stop squatters who invaded the farm earlier this decade and who inhibit the successful growing of cacao. “[Venezuela] 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 single container of our chocolate, compared with four steps to export before Mr. Chávez came to power.”

This is exactly what happens when uninformed and/or greedy politicians interfere in areas that they know little about. The government bureaucrats have created a monopoly over the industry which has eroded incentives to produce high-quality cacao. Yields have continued drop. Today, Venezuela only 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.

Venezuela, once a thriving democracy, rich in oil, cacao and people resources has become one of the most difficult places to do business due to government interference in commerce. Cacao yields have languished; even though cooperatives employ triple the number of workers it would if owned by a private company.

But Venezuela still produces what most chocolate makers consider the world’s best cacao. When the Venezuelan oil reserves are depleted and the current oppressive government is replaced with a more democratic bureaucracy, they’ll be doing what they have done for centuries; relying on cacao for their survival.

Choclatique's Venezualan Single Origin TabletIf you want to taste this special Venezualan Cacao before it disappears from the marketplace entirely, go to www.choclatique.com. Choclatique is having a special sale on our single-origin, Growers-Reserve Venezuelan Chocolate 100 g bar. Choclatique’s Venezuelan single-origin is rich in chocolate aroma with complex chocolate notes accented by subtle hints of red berry fruit. The cacao beans are sourced and harvested from trees of Criollo and Trinitario heritage in Venezuela’s Sur del Lago region. Here in these lush tropical forests in the shade of the giant trees, pink cocoa pods ripen ready for the next harvest in early November.

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