To Caribbean businessmen, the United States is the world's biggest and best market for their products. But it is also the most intimidating.
"Marketing is quite a sophisticated thing when you are talking about the largest and most complex market in the world," Roberto Martinez, trade minister of the Dominican Republic, said.
"It is one thing to say, 'Yes, we can export mangoes in cans,' and another thing to have these mangoes reach store shelves in the United States," he said. "It's incredibly difficult."
"We don't know how to market in the United States," said Aurelio Barria Jr., manager of the Panama Cigar Co., a Panamanian firm.
For inexperienced companies, the prospect of packaging, distributing and selling in the U.S. market is almost overwhelming--and very expensive.
"We don't have the means to do it," said Barria, who has an Illinois company distribute his cigars.
The Costa Rican company El Gallito spent more than a year adjusting the hardness and packaging of its candy to suit American tastes, Frieda Martin, director of the American Chamber of Commerce in that country, said.
U.S. officials are aware of the problem stemming from the U.S. Caribbean Basin Initiative, which granted duty-free treatment for most exports to the United States from the Caribbean and Central America.
Joint Ventures Popular
"Some companies may have a good product, but they don't know how to get it on a ship and out of the country," said Peter Alois, U.S. Embassy commercial officer in San Jose, Costa Rica.
Foreign businessmen often prefer to arrange joint ventures with U.S. firms to guarantee a market for their products.
"Developing joint ventures with American companies is a double advantage," Martinez said. "It brings money, and it also assures marketing."