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Issued : Wednesday, March 21, 2012 10:29 AM
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Fortuño leads trade mission to Panama

By : JOHN MARINO

Gov. Luis Fortuño is leading a regional trade mission to Panama this week in order to capitalize on the big potential for increased trade that exists between Puerto Rico and the Southern United States and elsewhere in the Latin American region.

The governor is heading the mission in his position as chairman of the powerful Southern Governors Association (SGA), which comprises 16 states and two territories.

The trade mission is in line with Fortuño’s “Growth Beyond our Borders” initiative as chairman, which seeks to boost trade with the fast-growing Caribbean and Latin American regions.

On Wednesday, Fortuño led a work session with economic-development officials from Puerto Rico, Panama and the southern U.S.

“While we all have our own goals and objectives for this week, we are also united by our business perspective, as well as our history, geography and culture,” the governor said. “Our goal is to strengthen our trade relationships and translate these efforts into job creation and economic development.”

On Tuesday, Fortuño gave the keynote address during a U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Panama luncheon, which drew top government economic development and trade officials as well as private sector representatives. He discussed the importance of continuing to create more opportunities for growth and economic development in Panama and throughout the Americas.

“I am here today not only as Puerto Rico’s governor, but also as president of an organization that represents the region of the most growth in the U.S. to call on you to continue working actively to strengthen the economy and trade between the U.S. and Latin America,” Fortuño said.

In 2001, 76% of U.S. exports to Panama proceeded to other parts of Latin America, the governor said. That is why the southern states are at the “vanguard” in this promising new era of free trade between Panama and the U.S.

Because of the important role that Panama, through its canal, plays in global trade, and its vast experience in distribution and logistics, the implementation of the U.S.-Panama Free Trade Agreement is key to free trade in the region and will benefit every country it touches, Fortuño added.

While the U.S. Congress ratified a pact last year, Panama is still tweaking the agreement, but officials expect it to be implemented this fall. Fortuño said Puerto Rico has expanded trade in several areas, including with the Dominican Republic after it enacted a free trade agreement.

“I know that Panama will continue the same pattern of expansion and development,” he said. “The results of these trade missions are more jobs and more business opportunities.”

Two Puerto Rico firms, Caribbean Project Management (CPM) and Climactiva energy consultants, have established operations in Panama.

Later in the day, the governor visited the offices of CPM, which set up shop in the country following a trade mission.

“The experience of CPM is a living example of what we have come to Panama to do,” Fortuño said. “We are showcasing Puerto Rican talent and promoting international trade.”

CPM has 168 employees in Puerto Rico and 38 in Panama, where the company is managing projects worth $263 million, including the 26-story Torre 5, which will open next month.

The governor believes Puerto Rico can play a big role within the SGA initiative he is overseeing to expand trade in Latin America.

The focus on trading with the Caribbean and Latin America makes sense because last year the region grew by 4.8% and is expected to top 4% economic growth this year, which is much higher than that of the U.S. mainland, Fortuño said.

“There is tremendous demand in Central and South America and the Caribbean for our exports because of the quality of our goods, our standards,” the governor said. “We need to take advantage of our proximity to these emerging Latin American markets that represent the fastest export-growth potential. Our strength isn’t just in the goods we build and the produce we cultivate, but also in our strong service industry and our intellectual property.”

Puerto Rico, with its bicultural, bilingual background, can play a big role in this push, he added.

“Panama’s economy is growing at 8.5% and is expected to continue to grow at a healthy pace through 2014, when it will open the expansion of the Panama Canal,” Fortuño said. “This will create tremendous opportunities for all of the American South, including Puerto Rico.”

More than 90% of Puerto Rico’s trade is with the mainland U.S., while the Dominican Republic and Great Britain are important secondary partners.

Besides the pact with Panama, Colombia and the U.S. are also pushing for a free trade agreement, with officials looking to finalize it by the end of next month’s Summit of the Americas meeting.

The governor’s term will conclude next year with Puerto Rico hosting the SGA annual convention, which will include a large-scale American South-Latin America trade expo.

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