El Salvadoran Businesses, Coming of Age

El Salvador President Saca, center, joins Andreas Arias, left, in recognizing the rising clout of nationals in the U.S. Watching is Don Strehle of BB& T Bank.
El Salvador President Saca, center, joins Andreas Arias, left, in recognizing the rising clout of nationals in the U.S. Watching is Don Strehle of BB& T Bank. (By Sarah L. Voisin -- The Washington Post)
Monday, June 18, 2007

With the president of El Salvador as a witness, leaders of the Salvadoran immigrant business community last week took a key step forward by establishing the first formal commercial ties with each other and with their home country.

At a ceremony held at the BB&T Bank in downtown Washington, the heads of U.S.-based Salvadoran business groups from Washington, New York, Florida, Puerto Rico and California signed a pair of agreements to cooperate with each other and with their counterpart organization in El Salvador on business development and investment projects.

Until recently, the groups have focused on helping Salvadoran-owned businesses in their communities network, promote products and navigate local government regulations. The accords signed Tuesday created the first official connections among the U.S.-based groups and signaled the growing clout wielded by immigrant business owners.

"Our primary goal is to create, nurture and promote the creation of new businesses," Andreas "Elmer" Arias, president of the Alexandria-based U.S.-Salvador Chamber of Commerce and one of the principal organizers of the agreement, wrote in an e-mail. "This initiative by the chambers also aims to incorporate all sorts of companies and industries that desire to expand their markets to Central America."

The expatriate community in the United States is a prime target for El Salvador President Elias Antonio Saca as he tries to jump-start his country's economy by opening export markets and encouraging foreign investment. Salvadorans living in the United States accounted for a vast portion of the nearly $3.3 billion sent home in remittances in 2006, according to the Inter-American Development Bank. Most of that money has gone to families for food, shelter and personal use. The Saca government would like to cultivate more direct investment in projects such as commercial development and tourism.

"The growth of the national economy has much to do with investment from the first generation of Salvadorans who came here to this country," Saca told the gathered group of dignitaries and entrepreneurs.

For now, the alliance is in its initial stages and each chamber is still defining its role. The Washington chamber plans to share its experience on political and immigration issues with business leaders from other regions, Arias said. The chamber from Florida -- an important entry point for Caribbean goods -- hopes to foster closer ties between importers in Miami and businesses in the Northeast.

The U.S.-based groups hope to help businesses in El Salvador -- including the popular national bakery La PastelerĂ­a Lorena -- establish U.S. franchises, Arias said. The alliance also plans to help small-business owners and investors in the United States establish a presence in El Salvador, including a Virginia security company interested in providing services to Salvadoran banks and a Virginia real estate company hoping to invest in an coastal resort.

-- Alejandro Lazo

© 2007 The Washington Post Company