(April 2) GUATEMALA CITY, Guatemala — Nontraditional agricultural exports ranging from berries to mini vegetables and ornamental plants were the focus of the 12th Agritrade conference and exposition, but time and time again, President Oscar Berger stole the limelight.

On the exposition floor, at conference receptions and during speakers’ panels, Berger, who assumed the highest office in Guatemala in mid-January, garnered accolades from both exporters and produce buyers from other countries who look to Guatemala for supplies.

Berger, who attended the conference a day after meeting with Mexico’s President Vicente Fox to discuss trade issues, also met with ministers of agriculture from other Central American countries during Agritrade, March 24-27.

Exporters see the pro-business leader as a welcome change from former President Alfonso Portillo, whose tenure of four years was plagued by charges of corruption.

After his inauguration, Berger appointed Alvaro Aguilar, general manager of the Guatemalan Non-Traditional Exporter’s Association, or Agexpront, as the country’s minister of agriculture. Agexpront, which organizes Agritrade, represents exporters of produce (excluding bananas), textiles, seafood, organics and other materials.

Speaker Adolfo Franco, assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the public sector has a role in establishing an environment for increased trade, but shippers and their counterparts in the U.S. and other countries create opportunities and job growth.

“I’m a firm believer, as is President Bush, that the way you have growth and the way you have opportunities, is creating them in the private sector,” Franco said.

Berger said he’s convinced strengthening the export sector is a way to help the nation’s economy. As one of the Central American countries in the proposed Central American Free Trade Agreement, Guatemalan producers should be “players and not spectators,” he said.

TRANSFORMING EVENT

Originally an annual event, Agritrade switched to every two years because interest from investors and importers of Guatemalan product was lagging, said Fernando Farfan, vice president of the exporting association’s agricultural committee.

The last Agritrade, nearly 2½ years ago, in November 2001, was hobbled by fear of international travel after the Sept. 11 attacks. Farfan said this year’s Agritrade attendance, which featured two days of face-to-face business meetings between exporters and potential customers, was doubled.

More than 1,700 people registered to attend the breakout conference sessions, and more than 4,000 people attended the trade show, which featured 130 expo booths.

A random sampling of exhibitors, which included companies from other Central American countries and Mexico, showed that U.S. companies are depending on Guatemala for fresh produce more and more.

“We had a contact this morning for a New York company looking for new items to send to the U.S.,” said Sergio Mendez, logistics coordinator for Aliar, an alliance of five small producer organizations that ships miniature vegetables, broccoli, peas and other items. Aliar sends snow peas, snap peas and baby sunburst squash to the U.S., through Fru-Veg Marketing Inc., Miami.

Miami is the main receiver of fresh Central American produce, and Guatemala’s presence there continues to grow. Frutas Mayas, a papaya exporter, started shipping the fruit to Miami last year and plans to open its own Miami office in April, said Lourdes Quan, administration manager.

YalcaChimba, a tropical fruit exporter whose Mayan name means “water spring,” will begin shipments to Miami this summer.

Inguat, the Guatemalan Institute of Tourism, paid for The Packer’s travel to and accommodations during Agritrade.

Guatemalan produce show generates increased buzz
Guatemalan President Oscar Berger (second from right), says agricultural exports are key to building the country’s economy. Here he meets with local coffee marketers at the Agritrade conference on March 24 in Guatemala City. The conference focused on exports of nontraditional exports of Guatemala, including berries, miniature vegetables, tropical fruits and organics. Berger, whose four-year term began in mid-January, received wide support from Guatemala’s business community.