Friday, January 6, 2006

CARACAS, Venezuela — Coffee is vanishing from Venezuelan stores as producers protest price controls that they say are strangling profits — no laughing matter in a country where drinking the bitter brew is not simply a habit but a culture.

Troops and inspectors have begun raiding inventories held by private companies in an effort to ease the scarcity, authorities said Wednesday.

The dispute over the bitter beans can be traced back to early 2003, when coffee fell under price controls for staple foods imposed by President Hugo Chavez’s government as a way to counter inflation and protect the poor. But prices set in early December outraged coffee producers, prompting protests in downtown Caracas and paralyzing deliveries.

National Guard troops have seized about 330 tons of coffee stored by wholesalers in Yaguara and Guacara, near the capital Caracas, and more raids were planned, said Gen. Marcos Rojas Figueroa.

“That coffee is going to be sold … at the established price,” he said.

The coffee crunch is serious business in a culture that has developed its own jargon for ordering the drink. Coffee doesn’t come just black or milky here. There is the “guayoyo,” or watery version; a “cerrero,” which is thick and dark like an oil well, “marrons,” which come in various shades of brown; and a “tetero,” or baby-bottle, which is milky.

Public frustration mounted as Christmas and New Year’s passed without signs of a resolution to the price dispute.

Starting yesterday, coffee seized by authorities was placed on the market, including at state-subsidized supermarkets, despite producers’ objections.

“We don’t understand by what whim they expect us to sell coffee below the cost of production,” said Gaetano Minuta, director of a coffee producers union in western Merida state.

Mr. Minuta said coffee producers were buying unprocessed beans at a regulated price of $1.31 a pound. Roasting and other processes to ready the beans for market raised the cost to $1.58 a pound — above the price of $1.57 per pound that the government has set for consumers.

“The country has to understand that we’re at peak harvest … and we don’t have anywhere to sell it,” Mr. Minuta said.

Bakeries and cafes continue to serve coffee at the regulated prices, while decaffeinated, instant and other types excluded from the price controls remain readily available. Packaged coffee has been disappearing slowly from retail outlets.

Venezuela’s consumer protection agency, or Indecu, was preparing to publish a new price for coffee, the government-run Bolivarian News Agency reported.

Producers have said that if a fair price can be set, coffee could be back on store shelves within a week.

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