O’Malley questioned about level of input from Hispanic leaders ahead of trade trip to Brazil

Gov. Martin O’Malley talks to reporters in 2011 following a trade trip to China, South Korea and Vietnam. (AP Photo/Brian Witte)

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley’s trade mission to Brazil and El Salvador, which wraps up early this week, was criticized shortly before it began by some Hispanic elected officials and business leaders who say they should have been more involved in pulling it together.

Sen. Victor R. Ramirez (D-Prince George’s) wrote to O’Malley (D) late last month that the nine-day mission had been planned “without having consulted or invited a single Hispanic elected official from the state of Maryland.” Ramirez said that three of those officials, including him, are Salvadoran Americans.

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Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez (D-Montgomery), who was born in El Salvador, is traveling with the governor’s delegation, but Ramirez said in his letter that she was invited only after complaints were registered with O’Malley.

“We are bewildered by your administration’s efforts to leave us out of the loop,” Ramirez said in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post. “If we had been apprised of your desire to pursue trade overtures with Latin America, we would have applauded your efforts, rolled up our sleeves and assisted the state in this endeavor. . . . Instead, we were invited as an ‘afterthought’ and only after the trade mission’s existence came to light and protests were lodged directly with you regarding our exclusion.”

The majority of O’Malley’s mission, which began Dec. 1, has focused on Brazil, which has the world’s seventh-largest economy and is home to one of Maryland’s 11 foreign trade offices. According to the governor’s office, O’Malley is traveling with representatives of more than 30 Maryland companies.

“We brought a diverse delegation of businesses, academic institutions and others — including the chair and vice chair of the Governor’s Commission on Hispanic Affairs and Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez — in an effort to generate economic growth and create jobs by helping Maryland companies that seek to sell into the emerging market of Brazil, and by encouraging Brazilian companies to invest in Maryland,” O’Malley spokeswoman Nina Smith said in a statement.

Last week, while on the mission, O’Malley announced that Brace Pharmaceuticals, a company created by Brazil’s largest domestic pharmaceutical company, had opened its U.S. headquarters in Montgomery County and plans to invest $200 million in the new operation. Several smaller deals have also been announced.

O’Malley’s itinerary has included meetings and receptions with companies and government officials. Last week, he also announced that he and Rio de Janeiro Gov. Sergio Cabral Filho had signed an agreement to share strategies for cleaning the Chesapeake Bay and Rio’s Guanabara Bay.

In his letter, Ramirez also voiced disappointment that the Maryland Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the state’s Salvadoran Chamber of Commerce were not involved in the planning of the trade mission.

In an interview Sunday, Veronica Cool, chairwoman of the Maryland Hispanic Chamber, said she learned of the trip only about a week and a half before it started — too late for many people to make arrangements to participate.

“We wanted to be a part of it,” Cool said. “This trade mission would have been really impactful for businesses here that want to expand. . . . It’s a lesson learned. We’d like to be at the table in the future.”

Cool said the chamber will release a more formal statement about its concerns early this week.

Gilberto de Jesus, another Hispanic business leader, said it came “as a complete shock when we discovered plans had been made and finalized without any notice being given to the Maryland Hispanic business community that such a trip was even being planned.”

He said the O’Malley administration had treated other groups differently prior to previous trade trips to Asia and the Middle East.

“The Maryland Hispanic business community and its leaders were marginalized and their expertise dismissed, and instead they were treated as irrelevant to the entire process,” de Jesus said. “It was only at the eleventh hour when some of our leaders protested that a few of us were invited in a token gesture to accompany the governor on his trip. Some went, others refused, believing they should not legitimize the omission with their presence.”

 
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