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Politics

Colombia Ambassador: Florida Must Act Quickly to Boost State's Exports

February 7, 2012 - 6:00pm

Gabriel Silva, Colombias ambassador to the United States, expects to see rapid growth in exports from Florida due to the recently approved free-trade agreement between the countries.

However, he told business leaders at the Florida Chamber of Commerces International Days held at Florida State University on Wednesday that both nations must quickly grasp the opportunities because the Panama Canal expansion will soon be completed. Colombia has 69 other free-trade agreements in place and four more in the works.

There are going to be a lot of things to do, and we need to do them fast, because opportunities come and go and we need to make a plan to take advantage of the opportunity, said Silva, who is Colombias former minister of national defenseand once was general manager of the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia.

See a video of Silvas appearance here.

Silvas call comes as Gov. Rick Scott is planning to head an Enterprise Florida trade mission to Colombia in December and state Rep. Lake Ray, R-Jacksonville, intends to lay the groundwork in the transportation funding bill, HB 1399, for how future port funding from the Legislature is strategically set aside.

Silva said Scotts trade mission will help build the international relationship between Colombia and Florida.

We want this to be a balanced relationship," Silva said. "We dont want to just export to the U.S."

Already his country, which has grown to become the 27th largest economy in the world a decade after beingmore known for its rampant drug trade and guerrilla insurgencies, is projecting the increase in exports from Florida.

With 5,000 businesses currently in Florida that have ties to Colombia, Silva said his country expects to see a 60 percent increase in manufacturing imports from Florida, with processed foods to grow 46 percent and fruits and other agricultural goods up 31 percent from the Sunshine State.

Colombia is already Port Everglades fifth largest trading partner, with 240,351 tons transported through the port to and from Colombia.

At Port Manatee on Tampa Bay, which handled 8.03 million tons of cargo in 2010, Colombia accounted for 152,670 tons of exports in 2011 and 182,504 tons of imports.

Jaxport CEO Paul Anderson said Silvas words were encouraging as growing exports means jobs beyond the ports and freight industries.

I think its huge for Florida, Anderson said. Theyre the eighth largest country that receives agricultural exports from the United States and theyre talking about boosting that by 31 percent. Those mean we'll retain the jobs we have and grow the jobs. Its the down-the-line related jobs.

However, Anderson noted that Florida and the U.S. are also behind in building up their trade with the South American country because Colombia, as well as Panama and South Korea, didnt wait to sign similar deals with other countries while Congress stalled.

Those are opportunities that Floridians have missed, by not having the free-trade agreements in place the past four and a half years, Anderson said.

The pacts were approved by Congress in October.

Meanwhile, seeking to again have more than $100 million set aside by the Legislature for ports in the next fiscal year, Ray said his strategic plan, which will be released in the next few days, will link manufacturing fields with transportation that can quickly speed cargo between the highways and rail lines with the ports.

If you dont have making it, mining it or growing it as a component of your economy, you dont have a future, you dont have stability, Ray said. Somewhere along the line, we decided we were going to be a service economy.

See video of Ray here.

House Speaker-designate Rep. Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, giving a glimpse of how he may direct decision-making as he leads the House the next two years, said Floridians must focus on areas that have been ignored for too long and be ready to make long-range decisions.

The question is, are we going to be disciplined enough as Legislature and government officials to make the strategic infrastructure investment in the right places at the right time to take advantage of the economic opportunities? Weatherford asked.

Weatherford answered his own question by saying Scott has been directing such long-range growth, with decisions such as directing $77 million for the dredging of the Port of Miami to 52 feet.

I think Florida 50 years from now, is going to be an extremely, extremely exciting, vibrant, innovative place to live, to work, to raise a family, Weatherford added. I dont think its going to take 50 years, but when I look forward, I think we should be making decisions based on a longer horizon.

Reach Jim Turner at jturner@sunshinestatenews.com or at (772) 215-9889.

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