Latin Buyers Beware

Latin America holds for the foreseeable future the most precious natural resource that the American economy could need: conspicuous consumers of products manufactured in the United States. It already imports more from the Colossus to the North than Russia and China together. If the trend continues, by 2020, it will consume more Made in USA "stuff" than Europe and Japan combined.

Any sensible businessperson would treat such a valuable customer with at least deference and courtesy, if not outright adoration. Not so the US when it comes to its neighbors to the South. In fact, the American political and business establishments, defying elementary principles of survival, actually are nicer, to the point of bending over backwards, toward those who sell them manufactured goods.

There seems to be no other explanation for the kid-glove treatment received by Europe, China and the rest of the Asian felines and the generally abrupt, contentious, and dismissive treatment reserved for Latin America. It all begins when the prospective customer attempts to get a visa to enter the US. Contrary to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, a Latin American is guilty and unworthy of a US entry visa until proved otherwise. The burden of proof, naturally, falls on the applicant - Latin applicants, anyway. European Community citizens, for example, no longer need visas to enter the US.

The art of cultivating a customer is an area where the US stands to learn a lot from the Japanese, beginning with the fact that exports are the lifeline of the economy. Many an American businessperson still is swayed by the belief that the domestic market is all that counts. But the importance of exports is no longer marginal.

Japanese trade delegations roam around Latin America with flair and gusto. They behave like the excellent salespeople they are. And the results are impressive. For them, no country is too poor or destitute to exist without a hefty fleet of luxury Toyotas, a stock of Sony gadgets, or Mitsubishi machinery. The American sales approach to Latin Americans is almost spartan compared with the lavish pitches some Asians bring to Latin customers. For example, Japanese trade officials and private businesses will bring Latin American middle-level government officials, who now or in the near future will make the purchasing decisions, to Japanese factories.

SO, it's not without irony that after a couple of centuries of rollercoaster relations - having exhausted the Manifest Destiny, outgrown Gunboat and Dollar Diplomacies, dismissed the Good Neighborhood Policy, forgotten the Alliance for Progress, and perhaps already aborted the Initiative of the Americas and its stepdaughter the Free Trade Area of the Americas - all Latin America is asking from the US is to be held in the simple, straightforward, not very imaginative, decent but privileged regard any business should bestow upon its best customer. Nothing more. But nothing less, either. Or isn't business the business of America anymore?

* Ricardo Caballero Aquino, a 1996 Humphrey fellow in journalism at the University of Maryland, is a counselor at the embassy of Paraguay in Washington.

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