Supporting British business – large and small - and building prosperity for the United Kingdom is at the heart of what we do at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. And Central America is an important region for us in that effort.
So I am delighted to open this conference and to speak about the British Government’s work to deepen ties and to help British business explore the exciting opportunities in the SICA countries of Central America and the Dominican Republic.
I would like to thank Hugo Martinez, Secretary General of SICA, for honouring us with his presence today. I first met him in El Salvador, back when he was Foreign Minister and am delighted that he is here today in his new role. I also wish to thank Luis Ramon Rodriguez, the Dominican Republic Minister of Agriculture who is here representing the Dominican Republic’s Presidency of SICA
And Baroness Hooper, Chair of the Latin America All Party Parliamentary Group – a very helpful ally on Central American issues. And of course our sponsors who have contributed to making this Conference happen. A sign of the growing commercial interest in the region.
Many will be familiar with the Canning speech Foreign Secretary William Hague gave in 2010. Where we set out Britain’s most ambitious effort to reinvigorate relations with Latin America in decades.
I have often spoken about increased resources we have put into Latin America, trade envoys, new embassies opened - and the relationships developed through our increased ministerial visits to the region – over 25 last year alone. The message is: Britain is back in Latin America.
That is definitely true of Central America and SICA countries, a region which I had the pleasure of first visiting twice already and I look forward to returning later this year.
My first visit back in 2012, when I met with the Secretary General, Hugo Martinez, was in part to open our new Embassy in El Salvador. Our Embassy there has 6 staff. That is compared to the 600 staff at the American Embassy. So by my reckoning, one British diplomat is worth 100 American…
So, I am pleased that British interests in the region are strong and growing. We are fostering closer political relationships and people to people links: taking advantage of our thriving diaspora communities; through tourism; through educational exchanges, such as the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s own Chevening Scholarship scheme; and, of course, through greater trade and investment - the focus of today’s conference.
Good conditions for trade in Central America
Our trade links are flourishing because the conditions in Central America are increasingly conducive to doing business.
Taken together, the SICA countries represent a combined market of some 52 million people and a combined GDP of £257 billion.
They form a region that has seen solid growth that Western economies would love to see themselves - approximately 4% GDP per annum over the past ten years.
A number of countries in the region have moved up the World Bank’s ease of doing business ranking and are taking real steps to improve their regulatory and competitive environment.
Central America, of course, benefits from a natural geographic advantage – a bridge between the two subcontinents and a natural hub for trade, tourism and transport.
There are proposed new inter-oceanic infrastructure projects in both Guatemala and Nicaragua, which offer exciting opportunities, should they go ahead. El Salvador is planning major airport expansion. Belize and Honduras have spectacular coast lines and tourism opportunities. Costa Rica is an increasing exporter of high-value goods, such as medical devices.
Panama offers many opportunities. Growth is an astounding 9% - and it is developing as a regional finance and distribution hub. It is unsurprising therefore, that the UK is already the largest foreign investor there.
But it is not only thanks to these factors that our trade and investment links are improving so rapidly. It is also, as I mentioned earlier, the renewed effort the British Government is putting into strengthening ties with Central America and supporting business.
HMG action to support trade links
Trade Missions like those organised by the Central American Business Council, often with the close involvement of UK Trade and Investment and our embassies in the countries concerned, are an excellent way of making direct connections between British business and the untapped commercial potential of the region. The Council has already organised highly successful energy-focused missions and will be organising a retail trade mission to San Salvador and Panama City shortly.
Just last month, after a year and a half of intensive work at the highest Government levels, I am delighted that the British Embassy in Santo Domingo has been able to open the Dominican market to British meat exports. I would like to thank the Dominican Minister of Agriculture for his co-operation in achieving that success.
And the Government is working with SICA – having become an extra-regional observer last year – to identify a number of areas where British expertise could help make a difference throughout the region – particularly in the security and justice sectors.
So, these are just a few examples of the work we have been doing to develop trade links with Central America.
British business in Central America
But I am delighted that a number of British companies are already soundly established in Central American markets, enjoying solid commercial partnerships. Covering a wide range of sectors. For example, London and Regional are working on a major development of the ‘Panama Pacifico’ business and residential community in Panama; bridge construction specialists Mabey Bridge are exploring infrastructure opportunities; and a number of British energy companies are involved in a mix of energy projects, both on and off-shore.
Retail is another strong and growing sector and I am delighted to see the popularity of British brands across fashion, homewares and food and drink - Top Shop, Dyson and Waitrose to mention just a few examples - making the most of the growing opportunities for expansion in the region.
Central American business in UK
And Central American exports are gaining recognition here in the UK. British consumers are increasingly aware of the provenance of goods and the quality of the coffee, cocoa and rum produced in the region, to name but a few.
I consider coffee to be a fundamental part of my life-support system, and having sampled a wide range of the excellent coffee from the region I would be hard pressed to pick a favourite. But I will just point out that the rum supplied at this evening’s reception comes courtesy of our friends in the Dominican Republic. That is not to put off our whisky exporters in the UK of course, who I know have the region firmly in their sights. I am sure there must be a recipe for a good cocktail combining those two spirits….
I recognise – despite all the success I have mentioned - there are undoubtedly still some challenges for British companies wishing to do business in Central America: the same is true for any region. But I am confident that these issues will continue to be addressed, both at a national level and through SICA, under the able direction of Hugo Martinez.
And looking forward, I can already see we have another busy year ahead of us.
The ever popular Latin America Investment Forum will be back in London in May and I know the SICA Embassies will once again play a very active role.
I hope to return to Central America later this year and see more of the region.
We hope to continue working with the region on projects to promote harmonisation of rules and regulations and to increase transparency. All of which should help improve the general business environment and increase investor confidence.
And I am confident that the EU-Central America Association Agreement, that we hope to ratify in Parliament later this year, will also make a significant difference to prosperity in both regions.
The Agreement will strengthen political dialogue and cooperation and allow Central American countries to consolidate and improve their access to EU markets.
2014 is, of course, the centenary of the Panama Canal, and September will see a UK trade delegation visit to explore the opportunities for British expertise to contribute to the Canal expansion project.
So, there should be no doubt of the energy, commitment and activity being devoted to the region, by the British Government or by British business.
There is a huge amount for us to do in 2014 – but our hard work will pay dividends- both in the UK and in the SICA countries of Central America and the Dominican Republic.
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