You Love Venezuelan Rum. But Is It Time to Boycott?

Posted May 5, 2018 1:44 a.m. EDT

A reader recently asked me about Venezuelan rum.

“Is it ethical to still drink it given the current horrific situation politically and economically?” she wrote in an email. “I adore dark rum and recently have become enamored with all rums from Venezuela but especially Diplomático. I joke that I am supporting the people of Venezuela but am I really? Should I stop drinking them? Who really owns those companies?”

The backdrop for her questions is Venezuela’s descent into increasing isolation, mired in an economic crisis, hyperinflation and basic problems of survival like food shortages and a starving population amid the authoritarian socialist rule of its president, Nicolás Maduro.

But is avoiding a country’s products an appropriate response, or even justified? Is there a difference between rum brands like Diplomático and Ron Santa Teresa?

“Living in a country like Venezuela, you have to live ethical dilemmas on a daily basis,” said Alberto Vollmer, the chief executive of Ron Santa Teresa, the oldest and most polarizing of the rum companies in the country. He likened operating in the country to walking on eggshells and then reconsidered. “More like broken bottles.”

While Venezuela’s economy is dominated by oil, the history of rum in the region goes back to the colonial era. It was made from the byproducts left over from turning cane into sugar and became a currency of the age.

Boycotts, of course, are popular right now. We are in the midst of a run of them, with targets like the Fox News host Laura Ingraham and Keurig coffee makers.

Deciding how you spend your own money seems like a fundamental right in a democracy. But Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, writing in The Guardian, warned of “boycott fatigue” related to fresh campaigns against Starbucks from the left and the San Antonio Spurs from the right.

My first call on Venezuelan rum was to Thor Halvorssen, an activist who runs the Human Rights Foundation, which puts on the Oslo Freedom Forum, a conference that honors dissidents from around the world.

Halvorssen is a dual citizen of Venezuela and Norway, with deep roots in both countries. He thinks boycotts should be focused on repressive governments.

“Engaging in boycotts that dampen someone’s freedom of expression is probably not a good idea, because those winds can turn on you,” he said. He brought up calls to boycott the Coachella music festival because of its owner’s views on gay rights, noting that “the owner of Coachella can’t have you tortured and taken away.”

He also said there is “not a one-size-fits-all solution or prescription with regards to ethics, boycotts and authoritarianism.” He believes proceeds from purchases of goods from places like Cuba end up helping a repressive government.

He had a more nuanced take on Venezuela and said the question was more situational, depending on the company. But he was vociferous about one rum in particular — Santa Teresa, and its owner, Vollmer.

“He acts as an ambassador for the regime,” Halvorssen said. “Nobody should buy Santa Teresa.”

That might sound like a tough stance. Vollmer, 49, has worked to rehabilitate gang members in his region by creating an ambitious work training program called Project Alcatraz and also organizes rugby matches for gang members and prison inmates.

But Vollmer has also long courted controversy for his accommodations to Maduro and his predecessor, Hugo Chávez. He also has a warm relationship with Tareck El Aissami, Venezuela’s vice president, who has been sanctioned by the United States as a drug trafficker.

Vollmer particularly fanned resentments when he appeared with Maduro last year, gave a speech, shook his hand enthusiastically and accepted government aid amid economic turmoil.

“He received the subsidies from the government and then he went on television to praise the government, in Venezuela and elsewhere,” said Halvorssen, calling such executives “key enablers of the regime.”

I met Vollmer last week in New York to hear his side of the story. He is a charismatic executive whose great-grandfather was a merchant from Hamburg who married a first cousin of the Venezuelan independence hero Simón Bolívar. (Halvorssen is also a descendant of Bolívar.)

He expressed a measure of regret, although he chose his words carefully, as one might expect, given his situation.

“For me, the main ethical dilemma that I have every single day is basically thinking, is it right to stay here?” he said of his country. “Putting my three kids in danger, I’ve got a 6-month-old baby, a 4-year-old and a 6-year-old and, of course, my wife. Every single day they are there, their lives are at risk.”

“But then you think, if we leave, then what are you leaving unprotected?” he added. “And so you’re talking about 7,500 families that depend on you, you’ve got the development of the country, you’ve got all that responsibility that’s somehow on your shoulders, that you’re basically leaving behind.”

Regarding his appearance last year with Maduro, he said: “I spoke with bad timing and probably the wrong body language. Not probably, surely. You know I’ve heard the speech several times, and when you see the content of the speech, the content wasn’t bad. The body language was bad, the timing was bad.”

He said that his company was extended a line of credit by the government and ultimately used $1 million to buy barrels for aging rum. When I asked him what he thought about the government, he paused.

“Wow,” he said. “I’m just thinking what the right answer is.”

“I would say I think we’ve made mistakes, and when I say we, I’m talking as a country. Decisions that have been taken have been wrong decisions that have taken us to a country that is in crisis, that has been isolated. Now I also believe that the biggest challenge we have as a country right now is coming together in having a unifying vision, a common vision.”

His company has survived for 221 years, and he appears determined to continue in what is a difficult environment for any company. The challenges of operating a business in the country were underscored last month after Chevron evacuated executives when two of its workers were imprisoned amid a contract dispute with a state-owned oil company.

“In such a polarized environment, if you try to be neutral, everyone is going to attack you,” Vollmer said. “If you leave, if the good guys leave, who is going to be there? Who is going to help steer things in the right direction? And when things somehow open up, who is going to be there to be build?”

Other rum companies have taken a lower profile. Victoria Cooper, a spokeswoman for Diplomático, issued a statement that lived up to the company’s name: “We are aware of the difficult situation that our country is facing, and it is our duty to support our local community and employees in the best way we can.”

Halvorssen, for his part, believes there should be more thought put into the question of the political conditions under which are products are made.

“People are smart when it comes to buying their groceries, buying cage-free eggs,” he said. “Why wouldn’t people have an individual commerce policy?”