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By Corina Pons
CARACAS (Reuters)

In a modest apartment near a Caracas slum, nutrition professor Nancy Silva and four aids spread rich, dark Venezuelan cocoa on a stone counter to make chocolate bars to be sold in local shops that cater to the crisis-hit country‘s dwindling elite

Like some 20 recently launched Venezuelan businesses, Silva uses the country’s aromatic cocoa to make gourmet bars of the kind that can fetch more than $10 each in upscale shops in Paris or Tokyo.

 

Yoffre Echarri holds an opened cocoa pod at his plantation in Caruao
Yoffre Echarri holds an opened cocoa pod at his plantation in Caruao, Venezuela October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

 

The oil-rich but recession-devastated nation’s Byzantine bureaucracy makes large-scale exports nearly impossible for small businesses.

As a result, most of her bars are sold locally for less than one U.S. dollar – well out of reach of millions of Venezuelans who earn less than that in a week, but reasonably priced for the well-heeled of an increasingly two-tiered economy.

 

Nancy Silva packages chocolate bars at the Kirikire chocolate factory in Caracas
Nancy Silva packages chocolate bars at the Kirikire chocolate factory in Caracas, Venezuela October 4, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

 

But entrepreneurs who have launched new Venezuelan chocolatiers in recent years say producing gourmet bars allows them to make a living amid the collapse of a socialist economic system – and dream of exports as a golden opportunity down the road.

“Our real oil is cocoa,” said Silva, owner of the chocolatier Kirikire that in 2014 won an award from the prestigious Salon du Chocolat fair in Paris. “In Europe, they’re snatching up these bars.”

 

Yoffre Echarri extends cocoa beans to dry them at the roof of his house in Caruao
Yoffre Echarri extends cocoa beans to dry them at the roof of his house in Caruao, Venezuela October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

 

Silva faces constant operational challenges due to hyperinflation and Soviet-style product shortages. But these are offset by steady access to high-quality aromatic cocoa from a cocoa farm in eastern Venezuela owned by her family.

Her bars are sold in high-end Caracas grocery stores, delis and liquor stores, where everything from staple products to luxury goods are amply available to the well-heeled – in contrast to the long lines and bare shelves of most shops.

 

A worker makes chocolate bars at the Mantuano chocolate factory in Caracas
A worker makes chocolate bars at the Mantuano chocolate factory in Caracas, Venezuela October 26, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

 

Silva is now focused on getting her chocolate to France, where she once sold a single kilo of her chocolate for the equivalent of 80 euros ($96), which is today the equivalent of five years of minimum wage salary in Venezuela.

Standing in her way are a range of permits such as customs authorizations and sanitary inspections that take months in Venezuela’s notoriously inefficient bureaucracy.

 

Cocoa pods are seen at the plantation of Yoffre Echarri in Caruao
Cocoa pods are seen at the plantation of Yoffre Echarri in Caruao, Venezuela October 24, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

 

The Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Venezuela was the world’s leading cocoa producer at the end of the 18th century when it was still a Spanish colony, according to Jose Franceschi, who has written books about cocoa and whose great-grandfather founded the Venezuela’s gourmet Franceschi chocolate brand.

 

 

But the cocoa trade was overshadowed by the rise of the oil industry in the early 20th century. Critics say it was further weakened by state takeovers under late President Hugo Chavez, who boosted state involvement in the economy as part of promises to create a society of equals.

But since the crash of oil markets, Venezuela has become a sharply divided society where oil engineers and public hospital doctors rarely make as much as $50 a month while a small group citizens with access to even modest amounts of hard currency can afford fine dining and gourmet products.

 

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