CARACAS, April 10 (Reuters) - Venezuela's flavorful cocoa, coveted centuries ago by pirates and now a darling of specialty producers, will not be enriching foreign chocolate bars any time soon.
The South American country's socialist government has drastically reduced export permits for cocoa in the last five months, according to Venezuela's cocoa industry group.
The group said about 5,000 tonnes from the January-February cocoa harvest are stuck in the country, ruffling chocolatiers in top importers Japan and Switzerland and risking roughly $17.5 million in export revenue.
"They're ruining the reputation of Venezuela as a cocoa exporter," said group President Alejandro Prosperi.
Governments around the world require export licenses, sometimes to limit sales of goods in short supply. Local media said the export license restrictions may be intended to bring down domestic chocolate prices.
Chocoholics need not fret about their favorite treats, however, as Venezuela's annual cocoa exports total no more than 8,000 tonnes, a fraction of the world's roughly 4 million-tonne output.
Still, the holdup highlights the risks for businesses in highly regulated and sometimes unpredictable Venezuela. It is also creating a headache for chocolatiers planning to flaunt their aromatic Venezuelan cocoa on wrappers.
"We're trying to offer cacao of other origins to our clients but it doesn't always work, because of the name or the aromatic profile," complained a Swiss trader who has 75 tonnes blocked in Venezuela. "If the cocoa doesn't arrive now it will rot and we're going to have to wait for the next harvest."
The government did not respond to requests for comments.
The tumble in cocoa exports comes amid a souring business climate in crisis-hit Venezuela.
Sweeping nationalizations and product shortages have crimped domestic production, and today the OPEC country is overwhelmingly dependent on oil.
Cocoa, grown abundantly along the tropical Caribbean coastline, is one of the few products Venezuela still exports, albeit nowhere near as much as its neighbor Brazil.
Chocolate appears in safe supply domestically, unlike basics including toilet paper and meat, for which Venezuelans spend hours queuing up for.
An employee at a buzzing chocolate store in affluent eastern Caracas on Friday said the store's cacao supply was regular.
Still, producers already suffering from lack of milk and machinery are poised to take a further hit.
"Venezuela has the best cocoa in the world, but foreign buyers have told us they're going to have to substitute it if Venezuela can't meet its obligations," said Prosperi. (Additional reporting by Diego Ore and Brian Ellsworth in Caracas and Marcy Nicholson in New York; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)