By Luc Cohen and Ivan Castro
NEW YORK/MANAGUA (Reuters) - Venezuela, once a proud exporter of premium coffee, has been reduced to swapping crude oil for growing volumes of Nicaraguan coffee beans to make sure worsening economic turmoil does not prevent people from getting their caffeine fix.
For the first time on record, coffee imports this year will exceed the bean output of Venezuela's centuries-old coffee industry, according to U.S. government estimates. The South American country's shift from net coffee exporter to substantial importer has altered flows in regional markets, boosting prices for some varieties of coffee.
It is also another sign of how the collapse in crude oil prices, and resulting pressures on an already deeply troubled Venezuelan economy, has forced the government of the OPEC member to take extraordinary measures to keep supermarket shelves stocked with basic goods.
Falling coffee production and near-record demand has forced it to buy more higher-priced foreign beans, according to Nicaragua's export figures and interviews with producers and traders in Venezuela and Nicaragua.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture expects Venezuela's demand to reach 1.3 million 60-kg bags in the crop season, which ends in September, with the nation's production withering to just 660,000 bags, its third-smallest crop on record since 1960/61. To make up the difference, Venezuela will have to import a record 685,000 bags, the USDA estimates.
A leaf disease has ravaged crops and low domestic retail coffee prices set by the Venezuelan government are prompting farmers to abandon coffee production. They are switching to cattle or leaving agriculture altogether and moving to cities, sources familiar with the Venezuelan coffee industry say.
Prices for key farming materials like fertilizer have skyrocketed due to the collapsing Bolivar currency and the resulting 68-percent inflation rate. As farmers are squeezed, the quality of beans they can produce suffers.
To keep up with rising demand, Caracas imported almost 70,000 bags of Nicaraguan beans in the last three months of 2014, more than any other country and more than 60 percent of the amount it brought in from Nicaragua in all of the 2013/14 crop year, data from Nicaragua's Center for Export Processing (Cetrex) show.
The purchases are carried out under the Petro-Caribbean Agreement, in which Venezuela ships subsidized crude oil to political allies like Nicaragua in exchange for basic goods, traders and other sources familiar with the arrangement said.
Nicaragua received 27,000 barrels of crude oil and refined products a day from Venezuela in 2013, according to the most recent data from state-run oil company Petroleos de Venezuela.
PDVSA, the state-owned oil company, could not be reached for comment. Albalinisa, a PDVSA-controlled Nicaraguan company that does the coffee trades, did not respond to requests for comment.
Coffee purchases likely spiked late in the year because the government wanted to make sure families had enough for Christmas celebrations, a source familiar with Venezuela's coffee industry said. "In order to secure the volume they need, they had to pay a better price than the one they're offering in the local market," said Jose Angel Buitrago, president of Nicaragua's Coffee Exporters Association.
Cetrex data show Venezuela paid on average $2.21 a pound for its Nicaraguan coffee late last year, 50 percent more than prices paid by U.S. buyers.
But despite the higher prices, the quality of Nicaraguan coffee sent to Venezuela was lower than that arriving in the United States, said Vicente Perez, executive director of Venezuela's Fedeagro, which represents the country's farmers. Some of the beans had already been rejected by U.S. importers.
The spike in Venezuela's bumper-priced imports has boosted the premium for Nicaraguan beans elsewhere too. In the United States, Nicaraguan coffee has been trading at its highest premiums to futures on ICE Futures U.S. in eight months.
WEAKER FLAVOUR, LOWER SUPPLIES
Venezuelans who cherish their guayoyo, a watered-down espresso popular in the country, complain about shortages and what they say is low quality coffee in the supermarkets.
"For six months I've been feeling like what I drink is water that I flavour with sugar," said Francisco Naranjo, 55, in a coffee shop in the well-to-do east side of Caracas.
He paid 40 bolivars for his latte, which is more than $6 at the official exchange rate, higher than a similar coffee costs in the United States.
He recently bought a kilo of price-controlled, state-produced coffee at a supermarket for just 7 bolivars ($1.11), but he had to wait in line for 45 minutes, he said.
The spike in imports marks a new low in a decade-long decline for Venezuela's coffee industry.
Two hundred years ago, it was the world's third-largest coffee exporter by some estimates, and coffee and cocoa production constituted its main economic activities.
"Before Colombia even planted coffee, Venezuela was already exporting coffee," said Perez of Fedeagro.
While the discovery of crude oil in the early 20th century shifted its economic focus, small-scale farmers in the mountainous Andean region continued to grow smooth, mild high-quality arabica beans for domestic use and export to markets including the United States.
It regularly produced more than 1 million 60-kg bags between the 1970s and 1990s, roughly in line with production from coffee exporters Costa Rica or Tanzania today, and in 1998/99 exported 550,000 bags, about as much as El Salvador today, according to USDA data.
Plentiful crops helped foster a rich coffee culture with people drinking both at home and in cafes, but falling supplies and quality are forcing some to change habits.
"I've already started to drink more tea," said Ricardo Perez, 56, as he drank a 100-bolivar cup of coffee with milk at an upscale coffee shop in the capital.
Over the past 15 years, coffee farming has gone into long-term decline. When late socialist President Hugo Chavez took office, he implemented retail price controls, and later expropriated private roasters.
Last August, his successor and current president Nicolas Maduro banned exports of coffee and other basic items.
Still the price caps and the population's taste for high-quality coffee have kept domestic consumption up, prompting an explosion in imports beginning in 2010.
(Additional reporting by Corina Rodriguez Pons in Caracas; Editing by Josephine Mason and Martin Howell)