The State Department last month hosted a conference on the business opportunities inherent in the cultural affinity shared by U.S. Hispanics and their counterparts in Latin America.
Several top Bush administration officials participated in the first-ever event, including Treasury Secretary John Snow, who encouraged Hispanic entrepreneurs to take advantage of the deep-seated cultural ties and seek greater trade and investment opportunities in Latin America.
"This administration highly values our economic ties to Latin America, and we value our ties to Latino businesses," he said. "While your companies do business with all Americans, of every background, it is interesting to note that the [U.S.] Spanish-speaking population represents the fifth-largest such population in the world. Clearly, that common culture is going to strengthen our relations with our Latin American neighbors, and provides a natural basis for our partnerships."
Mr. Snow added that in meetings with Latin American political leaders, major topics of discussion have been the role of Hispanic-owned small businesses and the great market potential offered by Latin America.
"It seems there is an understanding that the private sector, especially small business, must serve as the engine of economic growth and job creation, while the government's role is to promote a stable, investment-oriented policy environment. We are looking to build on that understanding with major free trade pacts that will encourage economic cooperation and international investment."
Commerce Secretary Don Evans echoed Mr. Snow's remarks. "Latin America is a dynamic, diverse, and growing market for U.S. exporters," he said. "Familiarity with the language and culture is always an asset. Today, more than 200,000 U.S. small businesses export. That's triple the number of a decade ago, and that's good news. But there are nearly 25 million small businesses in the United States, and more than a million are owned by Hispanic Americans. In this age of globalization, can so many businesses continue to overlook the 95 percent of the world's consumers who live outside our borders? Not if we're going to continue to lead the world!"
Conference participants also included small-business owners and representatives from several large corporations, including General Motors, BellSouth, and financial services giant Morgan Stanley.
Currently, the United States exports nearly $250 billion in goods and services to Latin America and the Caribbean. Trade with Mexico - the United States' largest trading partner in Latin America - was $233 billion last year alone, an almost 200 percent increase since the North American Free Trade Agreement was implemented 10 years ago.
"That's more than we export to Western Europe and the former Soviet Union combined," said Mr. Evans. "It's also more than our exports to the Pacific Rim. We want you to be able to take advantage of these market opportunities."
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage gave assurances to conference participants that the Bush administration, while pursuing issues such as Iraq and the Middle East, remains committed to Latin America.
"I think it's a legitimate question to ask where the countries of Latin America fit into this whirlwind of [diplomatic] urgency. I want to assure you that President Bush has a very clear view of the importance of relations within this hemisphere," he said.
"There has been much attention trained on the Spanish-speaking population in the United States as a vibrant and growing domestic market. But the more than 33 million people in this country who trace their heritage to Latin America can give us access to hundreds of millions more people around the world. People to whom we have not only ties of opportunity and proximity, but ties of language and culture and, in many cases, ties of the heartstrings."
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