Many entrepreneurs have their eyes fixed on China, but it may make sense to look south as well as east. The recent passage of the Central American Free Trade Agreement gives the U.S. six new free-trade partners--Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and the Dominican Republic. The treaty immediately reduces or eliminates 80% of tariffs on U.S. exports--including IT, medical equipment, and telecommunications supplies--opening a new world of opportunity. And risk.
Population: 14 million
Imports from U.S.: $2.5 billion
The economy remains largely agricultural, though makers of textiles and auto supplies have recently set up shop. Chronic political instability and corruption remain big problems.
Population: 6.5 million
Imports from U.S.: $2.8 billion
U.S. textile manufacturers take advantage of cheap labor by exporting yarn and cotton and re-importing finished products. U.S. franchises like Holiday Inn are growing, despite severe violent crime in urban areas.
Population: 8.8 million
Imports from U.S.: $4.3 billion
Home to the region's largest printing and publishing industry, the D.R. has high demand for paper, ink, and printing machinery--but the power grid suffers frequent blackouts.
Population: 6.4 million
Imports from U.S.: $2.3 billion
In an effort to bring electricity to rural areas, the country is investing in solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal energy. A sluggish judicial system favors national interests in business disputes.
Population: 4 million
Imports from U.S.: $3.3 billion
With a robust communications network and an educated work force (the literacy rate is 96%), Costa Rica is a call center substitute for India. E-commerce also offers promise, though the country has a weak record on enforcing intellectual property rights.
Population: 5.5 million
Imports from U.S.: $503 million
Predominately rural with a largely poor and unskilled work force, Nicaragua is expanding its tourism industry, promoting "eco-lodges," such as Morgan's Rock on the Pacific Coast.
Henry Estate's push into China flopped--until it learned that exporting means more than just translating the words on a label.
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