Image: Carlos Sanchez
Fernando Vergara  /  AP
“I feel like a flag. I feel like I’ve represented the country,” Carlos Sanchez said Tuesday at a news conference where he struggled to hold back tears.
updated 6/1/2006 11:28:49 AM ET 2006-06-01T15:28:49

Juan Valdez is retiring. Long live Juan Valdez!

Colombia’s coffee ambassador to the world, Carlos Sanchez, is finally quitting after four decades of playing the role of Juan Valdez. And the national federation of Colombian coffee producers is searching for a man to inherit his poncho — as well as his trusty mule, Conchita.

Sanchez has promoted Colombian coffee since 1969 with a leather bag, bushy mustache and straw hat typical of rural Colombia. He inherited the role from Jose Duval, a Cuban, who became the first Juan Valdez in 1959.

The Juan Valdez trademark has become one of the most recognizable in the world, the fictional figure one of the most famous Colombians of all time. Juan Valdez even made it to Hollywood, sharing a scene with Jim Carrey in the film “Bruce Almighty.”

Colombians have been thankful to Valdez for presenting another side of their country, which often is seen abroad as a haven for drug traffickers and terrorists.

“I feel like a flag. I feel like I’ve represented the country,” Sanchez said Tuesday at a news conference where he struggled to hold back tears. “There is a big sense of gratitude from Colombians abroad for this.”

Sanchez, 71, said his advancing years made it hard to keep up a strenuous schedule traveling the globe promoting coffee.

Coffee is the national product of this South American nation and was crucial in the country’s early economic development. It’s rare to find a Colombian who does not start his or her day with a shot of “tinto,” heavily sweetened black coffee. The bean also is used to make alcoholic drinks, candy and soft drinks.

The new Juan Valdez has a lot of selling to do: Colombia’s coffee industry has taken a beating during the global glut of the past decade. In 2005, coffee exports were about $1.4 billion, or $100 million less than those of a decade earlier.

In searching for a replacement, the federation sent teams across the streets, farms and — of course — cafes in the country’s western coffee region. With the help of U.S. consultants, it narrowed the field from 400 contenders to 10. The new Juan Valdez, the third incarnation, will be announced by June 30.

“Of course he must have a mustache,” joked Gabriel Silva, the general manager of the federation.

Sanchez nodded in approval and stroked his own impressive mustache.

“This is not a beauty contest,” Silva said. Images of the casting call showed dozens of mustached men, some with notable paunches, doing their impressions of Juan Valdez.

Asked what he wants to do now that he’s retired, Sanchez said “paint like a madman.”

For his part, Conchita, the mule, will remain alongside the future Juan Valdez.

“We’ve had to change Conchita a few more times than our Juan Valdez,” Silva said.

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