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Stay Informed

By Hannah Wallace March 31, 2008

Only three dozen full-time American correspondents are permanently based in Latin America and the Caribbean, an awfully small number to cover an entire hemisphere, especially when Florida’s three largest trade partners are from Latin America. Here in Sarasota-Bradenton, Latin America is the biggest source of our emigrants and it’s where most foreign visitors to Florida’s theme parks come from.

Even if you’re not the “outgoing” type of businessperson, you still want to know what hits you from abroad, at best before impact. U.S. citizens, for that matter, should know how Latin Americans perceive “our” actions. In comparison to the tremendous impact our government and U.S.-based corporations have on this hemisphere, U.S. news organizations are woefully underdeveloped. And that has consequences.

My very gringo-looking friend Ron from Texas once boiled it down to a one-sentence truth. A drunk Ecuadorean at a bar in Quito had hissed at him, matter-of-factly, “You Americans hate us!” Ron’s answer: “No. We don’t even know you exist.”

The best reporting I know comes from foreign correspondents who have spent a lifetime in one country or world region. But that’s the exception to the rule. When moving from Germany to Mexico as a 20-something, hoping to land a job as a correspondent, I had an interesting conversation with a veteran foreign correspondent. I had just graduated with a master’s degree in Latin American history, and considered myself an expert in Mexican politics. I told the Mexico City bureau chief of a German wire service I wanted to settle in Mexico. The well-meaning newsman pulled me back down to the ground: Don’t get too committed, he warned me bluntly. We don’t like to work with journalists who are out of touch with readers back home. That’s why we rotate correspondents from country to country.

I am not saying that U.S. and European mainstream media coverage of Latin America is meaningless. Their correspondents usually are dedicated, thorough and reliable professionals, and I do get information from their coverage.

But many foreign correspondents are out of touch with the reality of most people in developing countries. Most of their sources are from within their comfort zone. When you’re under deadline pressure, and when being mugged, raped, shot or kidnapped are more than remote possibilities, getting out of your shell is more easily said than done.

Newspaper publishers usually argue that their readers aren’t interested. But in Sarasota-Bradenton, nearly one of 10 residents was born abroad. This is a region that depends on foreign tourists and homebuyers. This is a region with thousands of retirees who have worked abroad for big corporations, the State Department, CIA, World Bank, IMF, United Nations.

So, if the old media won’t deliver, how can we find out how the world ticks? Eliminate the middleman, dust up your high school Spanish, go to the Web and make it a weekly exercise to read Latin American newspapers of the countries that most interest you. We don’t have a monopoly on excellent journalism here in the United States. There are really, really good papers south of the border. If you don’t have enough Spanish, try a newspaper from Jamaica or Bahamas. For starters, you can find a country-by-country list of Latin American and Caribbean newspapers at a University of Texas database at http://lanic.utexas.edu/la/region/news.

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>>Latin America’s robust economic growth, Asia’s continued expansion and a weak dollar are likely to make international trade the best-performing sector of Florida’s economy over the next few years.

Unfortunately for us, Southwest Florida doesn’t have much to offer in the way of international trade. Tampa, which is beginning to open up towards Asia, is likely to benefit some. But trade is expected to give the biggest boost to Miami.

A new study by StratInfo, released in January, predicts annual growth rates of between 6 percent and 7 percent for Miami-Dade County’s international trade through 2017. The study focused on merchandise trade, excluding tourism and financial services. Why does it matter? Salaries in international trade are above-average, and—do I need to say this?—an economic activity that provides decent-paying jobs should be wildly welcome by Florida officials.

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>>Here’s an opportunity for a crash course out of the recession: Learn Mandarin and get plugged into China’s economic growth. A possible venue is the Confucius Institute that is opening an outlet on the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida.

Language teaching aside, the four-year-old Chinese institution, in charge of spreading the growing nation’s culture abroad, will offer Chinese language teacher training, other China-related courses and exchange programs, and will have “eco-tourism, trade and sustainable development as an educational theme,” according to a USF press release. The first two professors from China were scheduled to arrive in February.

This is not the region's first Confucius Institute, mind you. Last year, the University of Havana signed an agreement with the organization, under which hundreds of Cubans will be prepared for doing business with China.

There are 40 Confucius Institutes in the United States (USF’s is the first in Florida), and 210 throughout the world.

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>>Talking about languages: In a first for this region, WorkNet Pinellas, a for-profit recruiter, held a bilingual job fair in Clearwater in February. A second event will follow Aug. 13. Companies with recruiters at the fair included Jabil Circuit, PODS, Nielsen Co. and Bic Graphic USA. The typical jobs offered at the fair were in call centers and customer service. Spanish was the most sought-after language, followed by French, Italian and—no, not Mandarin yet—Bosnian.

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist who has worked in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. He is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM.

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