- Table of Contents
- Full Issue in PDF
- Brazil and the United States: Working to Advance Their Common Prosperity
- In Colombia, Trade Opportunities and Stiff Competition
- Mastering the Art of Helping U.S. Companies Export
- Short Takes
- Trade Calendar
- Featured Trade Event: World Trade Week 2011
In Colombia, Trade Opportunities and Stiff Competition
Street scene in Cartagena, Colombia. (© iStock/Kseniya Ragozina)
The United States is Colombia’s No. 1 trading partner, selling $12 billion in goods in 2010. But U.S. exporters face increasing competition as other countries aggressively pursue opportunities in this active and growing market.
Given Colombia’s expanding energy sector and a number of major infrastructure projects coming on line, many opportunities exist for U.S. companies looking to sell their products and services in Colombia. But there is plenty of competition. Margaret Hanson-Muse, senior U.S. and Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS) officer in Bogotá, Colombia, recently spoke with Doug Barry of the Trade Information Center in Washington, D.C., about the Colombian market and the prospects for U.S. exports.
Barry: I’ve heard that, because you’ve been on the radio many times with your perfect Spanish, you are considered the Oprah Winfrey of Colombia.
Hanson-Muse: [laughter] Actually Doug, one of the best ways to do business in Colombia is to make yourself known on the radio. Everybody has a radio—either in their office, on their desk, or around their neck if they’re working in a field. So radio broadcasts, especially drive-time radio, are an excellent way to get your message across. There are also opportunities on television. For example, I am frequently a guest on a morning program called El Primer Café, which means “first cup of coffee of the day.” They ask me what’s going on in the USFCS, and I use that opportunity to promote our trade shows and incoming trade missions. I also will sometimes mention U.S. companies that have a specific interest or are looking for a specific opportunity. Recently, we have begun to use social media to get our messages out. We use YouTube to broadcast our programs as well as the embassy’s Facebook page to let people know about upcoming events.
Barry: What are people in Colombia thinking about the proposed U.S.–Colombia free trade agreement [FTA]?
Hanson-Muse: I think that the people in Colombia, who have been good friends of the United States for many, many years and who buy our products—we’re their No. 1 trading partner—are hopeful for an agreement soon. Colombians respect the U.S. political process, and the government here is doing all that it can to answer the questions that the U.S. government has put to it.
Barry: To what extent are our competitors eating away at what once was a pretty strong position of U.S. exports to Colombia?
Colombia at a Glance
Colombia has approximately 45 million people and had a gross domestic product, according to the International Monetary Fund, of $283.1 billion in 2010. Although the United States has had a negative trade balance with Colombia during the past several years—in 2010, there was a $3.6 billion trade deficit—the country is a healthy export market in many sectors.
Colombia is currently the 20th-largest export market for the United States. In 2010, the country purchased $12.0 billion in U.S. goods, which represents nearly 1 percent of total U.S. exports. Chief among the products were fuel oil ($1.9 billion), organic chemicals ($0.8 billion), drilling and oilfield equipment ($0.6 billion), plastic materials ($0.5 billion), and excavating machinery ($0.4 billion).
For more information about exporting opportunities in Colombia, visit the U.S. government export portal on the Web, www.export.gov, or contact the Trade Information Center, 1-800-USA-TRAD(E) (1-800-872-8723).
Hanson-Muse: The biggest thing that’s happened recently is that, in 2010, China became Colombia’s No. 2 trading partner. Colombia’s exports to China have grown 224 percent in one year! Colombia has a very ambitious trade agenda. It has initiated FTA negotiations with South Korea and Panama and has plans to start talking to Japan and Turkey. They’ve also been looking at joining Mercosur [Southern Common Market], and their free trade agreement with Canada will enter into force later this year.
Barry: The United States has some natural advantages, close proximity to Colombia being one of them and a long trading history with the region being another. But are you saying that these are not enough to ensure that the United States will have a robust trading relationship with Colombia in the future?
Hanson-Muse: We have a lot of competition now. Because there has been a fluctuating exchange rate, U.S. exports have been holding their own recently, but when the tariffs are taken off products from the other countries I mentioned, especially those from Canada, U.S. exporters are really going to have to step up their marketing efforts. They’re going to need to visit more often. They’re going to need to stress the high quality of their products and services. They’re going to have to make sure that they’ve got a great sales and after-service program in place to stay competitive.
Barry: What are the opportunities in Colombia for U.S. producers today?
Hanson-Muse: There are a wide variety of opportunities. I’d particularly single out some major infrastructure projects. For example, the Colombian oil and gas market is on fire—no pun intended! Two U.S. companies are at the helm of $6 billion in refinery modernization projects. These will open up opportunities for hundreds of small to medium-sized businesses in the oil and gas equipment and services sector. In addition to oil and gas, there are projects involving ports, airports, and telecommunications. Colombia today is like the United States in the 1950s, when President Dwight D. Eisenhower started to build the interstate highway system—it’s just incredible the amount of building that’s going on. So obviously the construction sector is very important, as well as the building materials sector. Medical equipment and plastics and resins all have a big demand as well.
Barry: You’ve lived in Colombia for a while. Can you give us an insight into the Colombian personality and character?
Hanson-Muse: They are very professional on a business basis. Many Colombians have been educated in the United States. In fact, Colombia is the second-largest market for U.S. college recruiters [in Latin America], second only to Brazil. Here in Bogotá, people are super punctual. Many speak English and already have established contacts with U.S. companies. Outside of Bogotá, there are unique opportunities in different departments, which are the equivalent of U.S. states. When we conduct our trade missions, we try to visit two or three different cities so that people can experience the flavor of Colombia.
Barry: How does a U.S. company interested in the Colombian market get in contact with you?
Hanson-Muse: The first step is the nearest U.S. Export Assistance Center (USEAC). They are waiting for your call. We are currently working with the USEACs in Arizona, the Carolinas, and West Virginia to promote trade missions. We have 11 trade missions coming to Colombia this year. So it’s very likely, if you contact a USEAC, that you will be able to join a trade mission. Second, go to the U.S. government’s export portal on the Web at www.export.gov. Here you can access information on Colombia, including the latest Country Commercial Guide. And third, call the Trade Information Center at 1-800-USA-TRAD(E) (1-800-872-8723), which is also another great resource. Their trade specialists will contact us here in Colombia and will help introduce the client and their product to us so that we can figure out a good market-entry strategy. We’re very honest in my office. We will tell you if your product or service is a good fit or not. We don’t want you to lose money; we want you to make money. And we want you to be successful and come back again.
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