Much of Latin America’s commerce with the United States courses through Miami-Dade County. And other regions are taking notice.
That was the warning Tuesday from a top Florida trade official during a mostly sunny exploration of Miami’s import and export industry — perhaps the most celebrated corner of the local economy. Manual Mencia, senior vice president of international trade for Enterprise Florida, outlined why Miami can’t count on its natural ties to Latin America protecting its economic connections as other cities vie for the same lucrative trade routes.
“We can’t be asleep at the wheel,’’ Mencia, told more than 200 people gathered at the University of Miami for the Brooking Institution’s Global Cities Initiative forum. “We’ve felt for decades that this Latin American market has been ours as sort of an Eleventh Commandment.”
He noted Miami no longer claims top trading-partner status with some Latin American countries. For instance, the latest trade data show Houston is the favored port for Argentina, Chile, Colombia, and Venezuela, according to figures tracked by the Miami-based trade publication WorldCity. The Miami customs district is still tops this year for Brazil, Honduras and Peru.
WorldCity’s Ken Roberts said in an e-mail that oil prices helped boost Houston’s trade statistics, but that a second-place ranking for a key Latin trade route “is not helpful” for Miami.
Latin America’s commodities boom and the overall economic growth of Brazil helped South Florida’s trade industry ride out the recession, even as shipments aimed at the U.S. market plunged. Latin American ties get most of the credit when economists explain Miami-Dade’s relatively robust rebound in employment and tourism.
“There are three things you can’t take away from us,’’ UM President Donna Shalala said in her opening remarks. “Location, location and location.”
But South Florida’s Latin American connections will be under strain in the coming years as more cities look south for economic growth, and ports across the Eastern Seaboard compete for the larger ships that will be sailing through a deepened Panama Canal. Port Miami is spending upwards of $1 billion on a new tunnel and dredging project to attract the deeper ships, along with a resuscitated railway that will link the cargo bays with train depots in the western part of Miami-Dade.
Tuesday’s forum highlighted Miami’s natural advantages in the battle. One panelist, head of global initiatives for the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, noted even that international city can’t compete with Miami’s ties to the Southern Hemisphere.
“In Los Angeles, we don’t have one single bank from Latin America,’’ said Carlos Valderrama, the Chamber official.