Newsweek | 4/12/2010 12:00:00 AM
The Secret Life of Juan Valdez
April 12--How Colombia's most famous coffee picker is challenging Starbucks.
Until the emergence of Shakira, Valdez, who was played by two different actors, was the Colombian celebrity most known to Americans. My Slate colleague John Dickerson recalls that on a trip to Colombia with President George W. Bush, the press corps was sequestered at the airport, and "Juan Valdez" was brought out to pose for photographs with reporters. "People took a few and then he hung around smiling at all of us typing on our laptops for the next seven hours." (Dickerson doesn't remember whether the donkey was present. After all, when you're traveling with the White House press corps, it's tough to keep track of the precise number of asses on the premises.)
In the past decade, Colombia has undergone a transformation—it's safer, more prosperous, and, while still poor, much more integrated with the global economy. Exports tripled between 2002 and 2008. Juan Valdez has also undergone a transformation. The stock character is gone, but the name lives on. In the past decade, Juan Valdez has shifted from being a person who traded on a stereotypical, pre-modern image of Colombia—lilting Spanish, peasant garb, farm animal—into an international brand and consumer experience.
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