Trip to Nicaragua, El Salvador seen as market test
By Paola Iuspa
A group of local entrepreneurs say a recent six-day trade trip to Nicaragua and El Salvador gave them a chance to analyze whether their products or services would be welcome in those countries.
Representatives of 13 companies from Florida participated in the trade mission, organized by the Central America-US Chamber of Commerce and Enterprise Florida, in an effort to promote exports to Central America.
Face-to-face meetings with potential customers and seminars on how to trade with Nicaragua and El Salvador were the main focus of the trip, which ended this month.
The mission, which is being scheduled every three years, aims to promote local exports to an economically growing region, said Gabriel Pascual, director of the Central America-US Chamber.
"It is important to promote Florida's sales," he said. "Central America is Florida's biggest trade partner as a region, with an international trade of over $13 billion, more than twice the trade between Florida and Brazil, which is the largest partner as a country."
In 1999, Florida exported goods valued at $112 million to Central America, up $22 million from 1998, Mr. Pascual said.
Staffers at the Florida Department of State's Office of International Affairs said that about 20% of total state trade is with Central America.
Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris accompanied the group, meeting with local government and US embassy officials in an effort to open dialogue on potential cooperation in the areas of culture, historic preservation, education and trade.
While some companies sending representatives on the mission sought to offer financial programs or promote insurance agencies and bond investment, others were looking to get a feel for the markets' potential.
Some items in high demand in Nicaragua and El Salvador are communications equipment, computer peripherals and programming software, construction materials and machinery, said Luis Cuervo, manager of North America, Africa & the Caribbean Region with Enterprise Florida.
"Of course, once you find a niche," he said, "then you got yourself a deal, especially after Mitch" the 1998 hurricane that hit Central America and caused heavy casualties and property damage in Honduras, Nicaragua and Guatemala.
"They are doing a lot of reconstruction." Mr. Cuervo said.
He said trading between Central American and the US is a two-way street.
"You see ships going southbound with merchandise and you have ships coming northbound carrying produce," he said. "Although the mission is to open grounds for local companies, the follow-up is the most paramount test of success for a trade mission.
"When you come back, it doesn't stop there. You are looking for a counterpart. You try to establish a business relation with those you met. Something fruitful will come out of it. It won't happen right away. But it will happen."
Mission participant Matthew Bogdan, international vehicle sales manager at Ryder System Inc.'s international vehicles division, agreed.
Mr. Bogdan, seeking entrepreneurs interested in buying his company's pre-owned trucks, said he didn't sell anything but he hadn't expected to.
He said he only wanted to establish some contacts and "get some business down the road."
Mr. Bogdan's company, based in Davie, leases trucks for four to five years to corporations such as Pizza Hut and McDonald's. At the end of the lease, Ryder tries to sell the trucks to companies in Latin America.
But so far, Mr. Bogdan said, Ryder has no buyers in El Salvador and Nicaragua.
"I had a much better response than I had expected," he said. "First we saw some discouraging figures in the per-capita income and minimum wages. But I was very surprised."
Mr. Bogdan said many fleet companies, trucking and truckers and household-moving companies requested quotes.
"We also had six inquires for distributorship, representing Ryder in those countries," he said.
Glandale Hall, vice president of Divine Develop Inc. which sells used clothing in Opa-locka and Hialeah and to clients in Haiti said she not only came back with new contacts but also learned a lot about doing business with Central America.
Trade mission participants, Ms. Hall said, "were very helpful. They told me about the market and how to get into it. They were very knowledgeable."
Ms. Hall said the chamber offered interpreters, but most entrepreneurs she met spoke English.
"It was my first time in a trade mission and it was wonderful," she said. "People were interested in buying things from the US."
Eva Salazar, international sales manager of Atlas Specialty Lighting, said what most caught her attention was the warm welcoming.
"People were so cooperative and willing to listen," she said. "Miami is the venue where Central America gets its supplies."