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Juan Valdez is retiring

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

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.