Americas, Venezuela, Opinion

Venezuela: Your Mission is to Find Coffee

I have a very vivid memory of being in my grandmother’s house when I was a child and having a large cup of café con leche at around 5 pm with a piece of baguette to gently soak in my coffee. I was only 7, I think, but coffee was a very important part of my routine.

It was not only connected to my food habits, it was also kind of a family and emotional ritual that bonded us together. My aunts and cousins warmly remember how grandma would offer coffee to all of us, to any neighbor or guest. It was the least she could do.

Some mornings, there was nothing else to have for breakfast but a cup of coffee with milk and a piece of bread; maybe some butter when you got lucky. Years after my grandma passed away, we still gather at the main house and share some coffee and think of those days where having a cup was part of our lives and not a luxury like it is right now.

Coffee is an Unaffordable Luxury in Venezuela

Right now, coffee prices have skyrocketed in what feels like split seconds in Venezuela. Today, a lady in a corner shop told me that a kilo of national grounded coffee costs 100.000 Bolivars. Let me put this into perspective, minimum monthly salary is 136.500 Bolivars. This is the kind of salary most people get, I mean, just because it’s called minimum salary doesn’t mean that you are going to make much more than that. So, you would have to use almost all of your salary to pay for a bag of coffee.

You can find cheaper options of course. I myself bought 220 gr of some unknown origin coffee (no name, no labels) for 7.000 Bs. What happened? It tasted awful. My coffee with milk looks mysteriously gray and it smells like some piece of burnt wood got wet.

Apparently, we once had one of the best coffee cultures in Latin America. Venezuela was drinking gourmet coffee on a daily basis and we didn’t even notice. We are now living the consequences because we are drinking horrible beverages that try to be coffee. Since 2011 we produce Type C coffee, which is regular and may include up to 60% of faulty coffee beans. Besides this, the State owns 70% of the production, which leaves good private companies out of the price competition and forces them to have products that look terrible and are more expensive than others. I have to confess that I was tempted to pay 50.000Bs for half a kilo of that national coffee I saw in the corner shop. I know that one will taste at least ten times better than the one I have now at home, but my wallet didn’t allow me to.

The Government’s Involvement in Coffee

The state controls the price of the product they produce and, since they own 70% of the production, very little money has returned on the big investment coffee represents. They want to keep “their” prices low, but it does not pay the rent. Factories shut down, workers lost their jobs and processes need maintenance. As a result, the quality of the product is now hitting rock bottom.

Finding somewhat good coffee and being able to afford it is the first part to have a decent cup of coffee and milk in Venezuela today. The second part would be to find milk and the third part sugar. Milk is now almost 80.000 per 900gr, and sugar is 40.000 per kilo, that would a total of 220.000. Let me remind you, our salary is 136.500 a month. Ok, let’s be honest, there is a “food bonus” we also get once a month, of 189.000 Bs. Let’s celebrate you don’t have to spend your whole salary on coffee, just 220.000 out of 325.500. That’s only two thirds…

Beer and Doritos instead of Coffee and Proper Food

By the way, just a brief parenthesis here about supermarkets. I went to one near my home today, I was looking for: eggs, meat, poultry, yogurt, coffee. I found none of those. But there were plenty of Doritos, vinegar, beer and much more useless items.

Now, let’s say we survive the economic crisis and we have products available again in the supermarket. Let’s say we have coffee and we can actually buy it without going vegetarian by force for a month. I think we are losing coffee consumers; we are losing those who are going to grow up with a grandmother giving them a nice and delicious cup of coffee at 5 pm.

These generations of teens and young adults are growing up drinking some other thing because coffee tastes horrible or there isn’t any. You may think “well, caffeine is not such a nice thing”, and while this may be true, what about the culture behind it? The production, the workers, the factories. It is an industry that goes down, with consequences that go beyond having or not having enough money in an account to afford a packet a month.

I know we have other things to worry about now: hospitals, hunger, medicines, political tyranny. I know. But every morning we wake up and fight to gather the pieces of Venezuela we still have. Are we really supposed to do that without coffee? C’mon!

About Isabel Matos

Isabel is a Venezuelan translator that struggles to find a voice and to prosper in today’s political turmoil and tension. She is also an undergraduate English teacher and is currently pursuing a Master’s in English as a Foreign Language. Translator, teacher and always student, she is interested in how language shapes reality and how women and men negotiate power through discourse.

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