Liberty / Transportation

Honduras “Open for Business”

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Trade Summit signals Louisiana-Honduras relationship set to bloom

NEW ORLEANS—Nine days after President Lobo Sosa’s September 7th visit, Louisiana’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce hosted an Honduran delegation to promote an array of trade opportunities between the two regions. Mayra Pineda, president of the Chamber and sister of the Honduran president, introduced approximately 50 guests to an influential and passionate line-up of speakers.

Aline Flores, formerly a student in New Orleans and now president of Honduras’s largest chamber of commerce, set the tone for “Enfoque Honduras” (Business Focus in Honduras), describing the United States as “partner number one.” Already the United States is by far the leading exporter to Honduras with 47 percent, and Louisiana provides 10 percent of that total. She then provided compelling reasons why Americans ought to consider more investment in and trade with the Central American nation.

From left to right: Darlene Kattan (Executive Director, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana), Mariebelle Lieberman (President, Mariebelle Chocolates), Alexander Hedman Alas (Director, Honduras Council of Private Businesses), Aline Flores (President, Chamber of Commerce and Industry of Tegucigalpa), and Mayra Pineda (President, Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Louisiana)

As a workforce, the nation’s population is young – with a median age of 21 years and more than two million between 18 and 35 years old – increasingly bilingual, and willing to work at low cost. 150 Honduran elementary and high schools are teaching in English and following American curriculums. However, Hondurans remain poor and extremely underemployed. According to the 2009 census, more than half of the working-age population are without employment. Even of those working, 36 percent were earning less than the domestic minimum wage.

She also highlighted the unique ecosystem, suitable for tourism and agriculture, the internationally bolstered financial system, and the strategic location. Perhaps of greatest concern, though, is political stability.

President Lobo Sosa, whose daughter studies at the University of New Orleans, has partnered closely with her and the business community with an eye for long-term stability and fertile ground for foreign investment. As part of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, American companies are almost universally free from tariffs and quotas; foreign investors are exempted from many taxes; and the country’s main port, Puerto Cortés, is the only one in Central America to have compliance with the United States Container Security Initiative.

These policies have found support from the Heritage Foundation and Wall Street Journal’s 2010 Index of Economic Freedom, which for trade freedom gives the nation a score of 84 out of 100 and the highest possible categorization.

Alexander Hedman Alas, director of the Honduras Council of Private Business, concurred with Flores; “She said it all.” He shared insights into the rapidly growing tourism industry and presented video footage from various destinations. He projects that for 2010, the number of tourists to visit Honduras will comfortably surpass two million, up more than a third from 2005.

“As you can see,” Pineda followed, “the sky is the limit,” as she summed up the sentiment in the room. “We have ties that go back generations, and I think it’s time to strengthen them and to make the relationship even better… It goes both ways. We want investors to go to Honduras… but I live in New Orleans; I live in Louisiana, so I also want Louisiana to flourish – to be what we all want, a successful economy.”

During the president’s visit a week prior, he met with New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, hospital administrators, university presidents, and leaders of the Port of New Orleans. Pineda believes that dividends are already coming in.

“There was a very important memorandum of understanding signed between Honduras and the eight local universities, and that is a direct outcome. That memorandum is an historic document… It means opportunities for scholarships, opportunities for research, opportunities for exchanges – faculty and students going from here to Honduras to train and to develop, as well as vice versa.” (Click below to hear a five minute interview with Mayra Pineda.)

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The final speaker of the day, Mariebelle Lieberman, president of Mariebelle Chocolates and a New York based Honduran, shared her migration and business success story. She joked about her earlier years in the United States; few people had heard of Honduras or taken her seriously. Apparently “half Mayan half Spanish” was a more impressive combination, so that’s what she proceeded to tell people.

Maribelle Lieberman, president of Mariebelle Chocolates, shares her story of success.

Through her company she sought to rediscover the Central American approaches to processing and flavoring cocoa, and the company has “exploded” since her products achieved fame as favorites of Oprah Winfrey. She encourages other Hondurans to take her lead and follow their entrepreneurial passions with opportunities in the United States.

The audience included members of industry, government, and academia, including at least three groups from Mississippi. John Lambert, an international business professor from the University of Southern Mississippi brought five students. At the end one declared, “I know where my future assets are going,” to applause all around. While not a speaker at the event, Lambert was willing to share an insightful perspective regarding why this event drew such interest and support.

“I think that if you really take a hard look at the history of this entire region – from Louisiana, Southern Mississippi, Southern Alabama, Southern Florida – you’ll find that we have historically more of a kindred relationship with Latin America than we do with northern states in the United States… Spanish West Florida encompassed the southern areas of all of those states… so there is a relationship that goes back in history that’s incredibly important. This has been an important link for trade since the colonial days here… Why would this be of interest to the states? There has been an historic relationship that has if anything been interrupted by the federal government.”

One New Orleans sponsor of the event, Jerry Cole of Cole Construction Company, explained that he was there to network and identify ways to import raw materials. His intent fit the view of a prospective investor, Astrid Sandoval, in the audience, who believes, with free trade agreements in place, education and communication – “more publicity” – are now the key factors for a positive and growing American role in Honduras, not further legislation.

According to Darlene Kattan, executive director of the Chamber, “New Orleans is the 3rd largest city in Honduras because we have so many Hondurans here.” And she described the event as testament to the vibrancy between the two regions and for the city’s trade opportunities in general. She noted that this year alone Chile, France, and China have also brought trade delegations to New Orleans.

Fergus Hodgson is the capitol bureau reporter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. He can be contacted at fhodgson@pelicaninstitute.org, and one can follow him on twitter.

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