Smaller companies urged to break into the markets of the Americas

Latin American and Caribbean trade conferences held in Miami often concentrate on the big players — the multinationals — and global economic trends. But Trade Américas Expo, which began Thursday, is shifting the focus to small- and medium-sized businesses and creating more business opportunities for them in the hemisphere.

More than 200 business executives, government officials, lawyers and other professionals are attending the two-day event, which features panel discussions, case studies, keynote speakers and the opportunity for executives from smaller enterprises to meet one-on-one with colleagues and representatives from multinationals and trade promotion agencies.

Some 250 private match-making meetings have been set up for Thursday and Friday, said Richard Burns, chairman of the Latin Trade Group, an information and business services company that is hosting the event in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank.

“Small- and medium-sized businesses are, in my opinion, the centerpiece of development strategy in the future,’’ Enrique García, president and chief executive of Caracas-based CAF-Development Bank of Latin America, said at the opening session of the event. It’s being held at the JW Marriott Marquis in downtown Miami. Friday’s speakers will include Uruguayan Economy and Finance Minister Fernando Lorenzo Estefan and Peru’s Vice Minister of Tourism Claudia Cornejo Mohme.

Now is the time for small- and medium-sized businesses to break into the markets of the Americas, said Fabrizio Opertti, chief of trade and investment for the IDB. “We think the opportunity is right and it’s ripe.’’

Opertti said that there are currently 42 free-trade accords involving regional countries and Latin American and Caribbean economies are increasingly “stable, fast-growing and diversified.’’

The region as a whole has a $500 trillion economy and a 600 million population and growth has been brisk for a number of Latin American economies in recent years.

“Latin America is experiencing perhaps one of the best periods I remember in my life,’’ said García. One of the chief reasons, he said, is because of reforms undertaken during the era of the Latin American debt crisis and hyperinflation in the 1980s.

Also contributing to the regional surge, he said, is the dynamic growth in the economies of China and other Asian countries and their appetite for Latin American commodities as well as the region’s access to capital markets “at terms we couldn’t have dreamed of.’’

But he struck a cautionary note. Latin America, he said, needs to increase economic growth rates and undertake further reforms in the next three to four years if it wants sustainable development. A recent IDB study found that if all countries in the region made reforms to accelerate growth, spillovers throughout the region would increase growth from an average of 3.9 percent to 6 percent.

García’s message: “Let’s not be complacent.’’

Despite criticism that the Obama administration hasn’t made Latin America and the Caribbean a priority regionally, Roberta Jacobson, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said there have been an “incredible number of high-level’’ trips by U.S. officials to the hemisphere in recent months.

During his trip to Mexico, she said, President Barack Obama made clear that “economic cooperation’’ is at the top of the United States’ bilateral agenda, rather than security concerns.

But she pointed out, “We’ve learned that there is a very strong link between security and economic growth. More and more we realize that foreign policy is economic policy.’’

In order to encourage small and medium-sized businesses, the U.S. government has launched several initiatives.

Among them is La Idea, which connects entrepreneurs in the United States and Latin America and provides online resources to help businesses grow. The La Idea program is currently running a business pitch competition for small and medium-sized companies with innovative business models.

Companies in Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, the United States and Uruguay may participate and ideas must involve a true business partnership between a U.S. and Latin entrepreneur. The winner of the competition will receive $50,000 in cash and business support service. More information on the program is available at

The United States, Jacobson said, is also committed to trying to improve educational opportunities in the hemisphere. “Education, education, education has become a bit of my mantra. I see it as absolutely integral to everything we’re trying to do in the region,’’ she said.

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