In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: Latin America’s big chance — ‘creative industries’

I have never thought of Shakira, Juanes and lesser-known artists as potential engines of Latin America’s economy, but newly released studies conclude that the region could grow more rapidly if it developed its so-called “creative industries.”

All of a sudden, major international institutions are sounding alarm bells about the fact that despite its wealth of talent in music, films, books, handcrafts, fashion designs, video-games and other creative activities, Latin America accounts for only 1.7 percent of the $646 billion in annual global exports of cultural goods and services, according to United Nations figures.

Even more troubling, the region has a huge deficit in its cultural trade balance: it imports $29 billion a year in cultural goods and services, and exports only $19 billion, the figures from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) show.

“In Latin America, we’re sitting on a treasure, and we’re failing to take advantage of it,” says Ivan Duque, co-author of a new book entitled The Orange Economy, published by the Inter-American Development Bank.

Much of the problem is that neither artists nor governments in the region see culture as a potentially huge industry, or a big export opportunity. Most often, cultural activities are seen as an amenity.

It’s time to change that, taking advantage of the massive expansion of Latin America’s middle-class, and using cultural activities as a way to reduce youth unemployment and informal work in the region, the authors of the book say.

There are many examples of countries that are making the most of their culture industries.

Canada’s Cirque de Soleil employs more than 5,000 people and reports profits of $800 million a year; Brazil’s carnival in Rio de Janeiro draws more than 850,000 visitors a year, who spend about $828 million, and the Bogotá, Colombia, Ibero-American Theater Festival draws up to 3.9 million spectators, including 500,000 who go to theaters and 3 million who watch street performances, the authors say.

Asked what can countries do to start exporting their cultural goods and services, Duque and his co-author Felipe Buitrago told me that Latin American countries urgently need to export more cultural services to their own neighbors.

Right now, the 63 percent of the region’s cultural exports go to the United States and Europe, only 34 percent go to other Latin American countries, and the remaining 3 percent go to Asia and Africa, according to UNCTAD and IADB figures.

“We need a cultural free trade deal within the region, to make it easier to move artists and contents within Latin America,” Buitrago told me. “We should give cultural contents a multi-national status, so that a Colombian movie is considered a Latin American product, and can be seen throughout the region.”

That’s not happening right now, the books’ authors say. Unless a movie is distributed by a major U.S. or European company, it’s very hard for an Argentine movie, for instance, to be exhibited elsewhere in the region.

In addition, Latin American countries should elevate the status of the arts in their school programs, much like they do in the United Kingdom, the authors said. In Britain, school curricula place as much emphasis on the arts as on math or science, they said.

Another new study, the “2013 Creative Economy Report” by the U.N. Development Programme, cites the work of economists such as Richard Florida, who have written about the cultural industries’ wider impact as a magnet for young professionals and entrepreneurs who help make major cities more competitive and innovative.

The UNDP report says that the city of Buenos Aires has become “a global reference point” for its creative industries development.

In Buenos Aires, the creative sector has been growing by more than 5 percent a year, totaling 73 percent in 2004-2010, it says. The most impressive growth has been in the audio-visual sector, where the city established an Audio-Visual District and gave audio-visual companies the same benefits as those enjoyed by the manufacturing sector, it says.

My opinion: While I strongly believe that Latin American countries should put a greater focus on graduating scientists and engineers than circus performers or singers — all countries in the region together are producing less than 10 percent of the international patents registered just by South Korea — there is a huge pool of artistic talent in Latin America that should be promoted and exported.

It’s great that people are starting to pay attention to Latin America’s creative industries, so that the region can increase its pitiful 1.7 percent of the global trade in cultural goods and services, and so we can all enjoy more of its cultural wealth.

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