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South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Puerto Rico Seeks A Higher Profile For Economic Ventures
By Doreen Hemlock
March 19, 2003
If the Caribbean island of Puerto Rico were an independent country, it would have the highest household buying power of any nation in Latin America.
If the island were a U.S. state, it would rank No. 27 in population among the states.
But that market power is often overlooked, because the U.S. commonwealth -- a territory of the United States with relative autonomy -- does not fit neatly into either domestic or international business categories.
To help raise Puerto Rico's profile, government and business leaders from the island gathered Tuesday in Coral Gables for an unprecedented conference that highlighted Puerto Rico's ranking among Florida's top trade partners and showcased some 20 island-based export companies.
"This is an excellent opportunity for us to promote our products," said Simón Gonzalez, president of Puerto Rico's Euro Caribe Packing Co., a sausage maker with sales topping $16 million a year. "Not all distributors know that as part of the United States, all our products are certified by the U.S Department of Agriculture and meet federal standards."
Puerto Rico officials said the island traded about $8 billion in goods with Florida in 2001. That's nearly as much as Brazil, Florida's top trade partner.
Yet few recognize that prowess, because the U.S. commonwealth doesn't show up on Florida merchandise trade statistics widely used as a reference for business with the Caribbean and Latin America.
"Definitely, you hear more about Brazil and Mexico," said Manuel Benítez, South Florida regional director for the island's Federal Affairs Administration. "That's why it's so important that we hold these events to draw attention to Puerto Rico for business."
The conference comes as Puerto Rico seeks to diversify its manufacturing-based economy, reducing its reliance on multinationals that long have produced pharmaceuticals, medical devices and electronics on the island and sold those goods worldwide through their own distribution networks.
With competition rising to lure those big factory investments, Puerto Rico now wants to focus more on helping small, island-based firms expand sales to the booming U.S. Hispanic market.
Entrepreneur Fernando Badillo hopes to cash in. He runs a 14-employee factory in Puerto Rico producing traditional island sweets: coconut candies, sesame bars and pineapple treats. In Coral Gables, he sought out a distributor to reach the estimated 500,000 Puerto Ricans and roughly 3 million Hispanics living in the Sunshine State.
"We're focusing on Latins who can identify with these products from their childhood in Puerto Rico or in other tropical nations," said Badillo, president of Tropical Sweets Industries of Puerto Rico.
Engineer Albith Colón said Puerto Rico firms have an edge in the United States, because they're already used to U.S. standards.
His 9-year-old firm, Gate Engineering Corp., manages numerous U.S. government buildings in Puerto Rico and with that track record won contracts to manage more federal buildings in Orlando, Tampa and other Florida cities.
Milton Segarra, Puerto Rico's secretary for economic development and commerce, said the commonwealth government even offers tax incentives to encourage new exports.
Big U.S.-based retail chains on the island, such as Wal-Mart, Home Depot and Walgreens, can get Puerto Rico tax breaks if they buy locally made goods and sell them off the island. Kmart already qualifies, distributing a line of household goods produced by Puerto Rico plastics maker Industrias Vasallo in its U.S. and Mexico stores, Segarra said.
Island officials aim to repeat events like Tuesday's in Florida and other states to further boost Puerto Rico's profile.
"How many people know that San Juan has the fourth largest container port in the United States and No. 20 in the world?" said Hector Jiménez Juarbe, executive director of the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Co. "We're working to get our message out."