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Brazilian investors buy Miami real estate. Haitian earthquake survivors attend South Florida schools. It's clear what happens in Latin America and the Caribbean has a profound effect on South Florida.WLRN’s coverage of the region is headed by Americas editor Tim Padgett, a 23-year veteran of TIME and Newsweek magazines.He joins a team of reporters and editors at the Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and NPR to cover a region whose cultural wealth, environmental complexity, vast agricultural output and massive oil reserves offer no shortage of important and fascinating stories to tell.

Can Juan Valdez – And Colombia's Mighty Coffee Corps – Challenge Starbucks?

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Patrick Farrell
/
Miami Herald

Juan Valdez and his burro aren’t just symbols of Colombia’s world-famous coffee.

They’re the faces of what is arguably the most effective and democratic institution in Colombia: the National Coffee Growers Federation. The federation – which owns the Juan Valdez brand – offers a glimpse of what the war-torn South American country might be more like if it ever achieves peace.

But the federation also hopes to alter the future of the retail coffee industry. And this summer, starting in Miami, it's confronting one of its biggest challenges ever: a push to compete with U.S. java giant Starbucks.

That’s one reason Camilo Merizalde was in Colombia this past weekend, taking part in the most important Latin American elections you’ve never heard of.

Merizalde is a Colombian-American who lives in Aventura and is a partner at Banexport Specialty Coffee. But every four years he makes sure he joins half a million members of the federation, known as the FNC, to choose thousands of local and regional representatives.

RELATED: With Miami's Help, Colombia Trades Battle Lines For Zip Lines

“It’s really gratifying,” Merizalde told me Saturday by phone as he finished voting in the remote region of Cauca, where he has a large coffee farm. “The example [it sets], it’s really good.”

The balloting, one of the largest non-government elections in the world, is a tradition that has also helped make the federation one of the most successful business groups in the developing world. Compared to even the most giant coffee industries, like Brazil’s, Colombia’s coffee growers are an unusually prosperous lot.

“When you travel and you see the other countries, you see a lot of poverty within the coffee industry,” Merizalde said. “Here in Colombia you don’t see that so much.”

In other countries, you see a lot of poverty within the coffee industry. In Colombia you don't see that so much. -Camilo Merizalde

Most Colombian coffee growers own small farms. Yet they consider themselves not just rural campesinos but retail captains: The FNC also owns the Juan Valdez chain of coffee cafes, which has grown to some 300 outlets in 13 countries since the company was founded 12 years ago.

And yet, even though Juan Valdez is a well known pitchman and Colombian coffee is among the best-selling in the United States, cracking the Starbucks-dominated U.S. coffee cafe market has proven a slower animal than Juan’s donkey.

(I should interject here that not every move the FNC has made in its 87-year history has been smart: Back in the 1970s, the federation was offered a ground-floor partnership in Starbucks – and turned it down.)

This summer, however, Juan Valdez has renewed the campaign and opened two new franchises in Miami – home to the U.S.’s largest Colombian community. Others are set to debut around Florida and the rest of the country in the coming months.

Global sales for the Juan Valdez cafes should hit $85 million this year. And Starbucks? More than $16 billion. Still, Juan Valdez customers like Miami chef Monica Izquierdo say a prime selling point, one that might augur well for the future, is knowing that profits go straight to growers.

Aside from enjoying the sweeter taste of Colombian coffee, “I know they are being treated right, the farmers, and that’s one of the main reasons I come here,” Izquierdo told me at one of the new downtown locations.

BREW AND BURGUNDY

Meanwhile, scholars argue the focus on Juan Valdez misses the larger importance of Colombia’s coffee federation.

The FNC has been “an essential element in the development [of] rural areas,” says Bruce Bagley, an international studies professor and Colombia expert at the University of Miami. “It has been a democratic note in a country that has often lapsed in terms of democratic practice.”

Bagley points out that government institutions have been shamefully absent in Colombia’s mountainous countryside, and that the federation has helped fill that vacuum. During the country’s long history of violent conflicts – including the half century-long civil war that may or may not end at peace talks taking place in Cuba now – the FNC has also been a rare model of large-scale cooperative effort.

That includes electrification, roads and most recently a campaign to save the nation’s coffee bean groves from plagues and climate change effects by planting three billion new, resistant trees.

Luis Samper, the FNC’s spokesman in Bogotá, says the federation, has survived in large part because it’s refreshingly apolitical.

Its members “cannot participate in political parties. There is no partisanship. And that helps us to deal with any type of government.”

As it should be. After all, this isn’t about liberals and conservatives – it’s about coffee. And these days, Colombian coffee lovers tend to describe their favorite brews the way wine lovers describe their favorite Burgundy.

Try a cup from the Cauca region, says Merizalde, the grower from Aventura, and you’re likely to taste:

“A sugarcane sweetness and a lot of floral like jasmine and vanilla.” And, he adds, “a lemon-grass flavor.”

Juan Valdez and the federation will need all that marketing savvy and more. Because this summer Starbucks opened its first store in Colombia.

Tim Padgett is WLRN's Americas editor. You can read more of his coverage here.

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The Latin America Report is made possible by Espirito Santo Bank